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Sleeping better in Seattle: Passing the SAFE Act resolution

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted January 12, 2004

Sometimes the first idea is not the best.

That was the case in Washington state when the Metropolitan King County Council considered a resolution expressing concern about the PATRIOT Act.

What happened in the county that is home to Seattle can serve as an inspiration for conservatives throughout the country who want to protect our constitutional liberties to the fullest extent possible while ensuring that our government has the ability to fight the War on Terrorism.

County Councilman Rob McKenna, one of the six Republicans on the thirteen-member council, said many citizens throughout the county had expressed concern about the PATRIOT Act. "There were lots of e-mails, calls, and visits from King County citizens," recalled McKenna, an attorney now serving his third term on the county council.

McKenna is one of three attorneys on the county council but his primary interest has been reining in government taxes and spending. He found himself involved with an issue that deals with national security and constitutional liberties, issues usually quite removed from local politics. "I think the Administration and the Congress tried to do the right thing in the aftermath of 9/11. But now we have had time to reflect about what is in the PATRIOT Act," he explained.

The Democrats on the council had adopted the ACLU resolution that many cities have passed to protest the PATRIOT Act. However, McKenna and the other Republicans believed that it criticized the Administration too heavily and failed to offer a positive solution. McKenna set out to develop a resolution that would be more precise in what provisions of the Act were needed to prevent abuses by federal law enforcement.

He found it in the SAFE Act (S. 1709) introduced by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators including conservatives Larry Craig (R-ID), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and John Sununu (R-NH). {Representative C. L. "Butch" Otter, Republican of Idaho, is sponsor of H.R. 3352 -- the companion bill in the House to S. 1709.)

As Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), one of the Senate's leading conservatives, explained last October at the unveiling of the SAFE Act: "It's time we adjusted [the USA-PATRIOT Act] to assure civil liberties are not being trampled."

The SAFE Act simply revises several key provisions of the USA-PATRIOT Act to ensure the law works as Congress intended when it passed the anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of 9/11. It seeks to instill greater accountability and oversight of the PATRIOT Act powers.

Take the Section 213 delayed notification searches, the notorious "sneak and peek" provision. Under the PATRIOT Act, "sneak and peeks" can be conducted, and property seized, without any prior notification.

The SAFE Act would permit a sneak and peek warrant to be issued, provided that giving notice of a standard warrant would lead to endangering someone's physical safety; cause a suspect to flee prosecution; or result in evidence being destroyed or altered.

The Attorney General would be required to submit to Congress semi-annual reports on the number of requests for "sneak and peek" search warrants and the number that were either granted or denied. Furthermore, the sneak and peek provision would be subject to sunset in 2005, which means Congress must reauthorize it, or else the measure would be phased out.

It is modest, yet meaningful, changes like these in the SAFE Act that can ensure that the sneak and peek power is much less open to abuse and that the integrity of the Fourth Amendment is preserved as much as possible.

The same thoughtful restraint is also witnessed in SAFE Act provisions dealing with roving wiretaps and in the Section 215 business and library record searches.

McKenna's resolution found wide acceptance on both sides of the council.

As McKenna, a supporter of Bush's since 1999 when the then-Texas governor made a campaign stop in Seattle, explains, "Lots of conservatives and Republicans are concerned about civil liberties but not willing to beat up on President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft. They are looking for a
reasoned approach."

The council Democrats were also willing to support the local initiative to endorse the SAFE Act. After all, the SAFE Act's co-sponsors include such notable senators as Russ Feingold (WI), Richard Durbin (IL), Ron Wyden (OR), and Jeff Bingaman (NM), all Democrats who enjoy wide respect from their party's liberal rank-and-file.

Seattle Times reporter Keith Ervin noted that the unanimous passage of the resolution calling upon Congress to pass the SAFE Act "puts the County Council in the company of liberals and conservatives from around the country who support changes to the Patriot Act."

Councilman McKenna's successful sponsorship of the King County resolution is just one more example of how more and more conservatives are willing to speak out on behalf of prudent revisions to the PATRIOT Act that will better ensure the protection of our constitutional liberties by providing more accountability and oversight while making sure the federal government has the tools needed to win the War on Terrorism.

What happened in King County can occur in your own city or county or state too. All it takes to initiate such resolutions are concerned citizens exercising their First Amendment rights by speaking up on behalf of the SAFE Act.

Steve Lilienthal is Director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy.

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