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USA PATRIOT riding into the sunset

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 8, 2003

My assistant Annaghia Oliver, who schedules my appointments, told me that the Deputy Attorney General as well as a Deputy Director of the Department of Homeland Security wanted to see me. What about? I asked. They wouldn't say, I was told. So I agreed to the meeting only to have it cancelled. It seems that the Deputy AG resigned. So the meeting was set again, only this time with an Assistant Attorney General and The Deputy at Homeland Security.

What did they want to discuss? The USA PATRIOT Act. This meeting occurred just as Attorney General Ashcroft was leaving on his 16-state, 18-city tour to push the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001"; parts of which will sunset if not explicitly revived by the Congress.

My colleague Steve Lilienthal and I met with this nice young lady from Justice and the polite young man from Homeland Security for a good hour.

Their argument boiled down to this: "Trust us. The act is working." Now with all due respect -- and these two clearly were sincere and meant well -- I've been around this town too long (36 years) to trust that the government will use greater powers only for the common good.

Remember how, beginning with the sixth grade, we were taught about our unique form of government? One of the things stressed over and over again was the concept of checks and balances.

Steve and I argued that the concept of checks and balances seemed to be rather lacking in the USA PATRIOT Act. Hence the three-to-one margin on the Otter Amendment, which cut off funds for use of the so-called "sneak and peak" provision of the Act. That provision allows the government to go into an office, inspect all the records, copy computer files, make note of even reading material, in short get anything it wants, without notifying the targeted party until way afterwards...perhaps months later.

Rep. Butch Otter of Idaho sponsored the amendment and 112 of his Republican colleagues, about half of the majority party, voted in favor of it, along with most Democrats.

I asked my pair of visitors "putting aside that most Democrats may have been voting for the Otter Amendment for partisan purposes, doesn't it tell you something when almost half of the House Republicans also supported the Otter Amendment?"

The reply I got, one Ashcroft repeated during a visit to Idaho last week, startled me. It was sweeping in its arrogance. I was told that this was all a mistake. They at Justice and Homeland Security didn't have time to weigh in, and had they done so the result would have been completely different.

I said to my young friends: "That was the most arrogant statement coming from a government official that I have heard in years. What you are saying is that these Republican Congressmen are so stupid, and understand nothing about the bill, that if only YOU could have had your say, they all would have turned around their votes"

I received no reply. By the way, in this instance, I don't believe that all Democrats voted for the Otter Amendment to embarrass the Attorney General. Many have very sincere civil libertarian concerns.

Otter said -- after hearing Ashcroft suggesting that his GOP colleagues would have voted against his amendment if only they had heard the Attorney General's explanation -- that Administration officials would be a lot better off if they listened and responded to the deeply held concerns of Members who believe that the USA PATRIOT Act has gone too far.

I felt exactly the same way at the end of my session with my visitors. They were there just to tell me how right they are, not to listen to the concerns expressed by Steve and me.

We, hopefully, are reasonable people. Certainly we want to be able to catch terrorists, but we will never buy the "just trust us" argument.

Otter is right. Why won't these folks listen? One of our concerns has been that the Attorney General has all the authority to determine what a terrorist is. We are concerned not about Ashcroft -- but about a possible subsequent Attorney General named by President Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who might define as terrorists those of us who peacefully oppose government policies. We offered to work with the current Attorney General to come up with a definition of a terrorist, which could then be put into legislation, not leaving complete discretion to the AG. "No way." we were told. You see, if Ashcroft would concede that perhaps some of his critics have valid concerns, and would work with us to remedy those concerns, he would end up with a lot more support for the USA PATRIOT Act than he has right now. On the other hand if the Attorney General just wants confrontation, he can keep on his present course. If so, he shouldn't be surprised if the sunsetted provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act stay that way.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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