Odd bedfellows fall in line
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Not everyone was happy with the result. Kenai police chief Chuck Kopp says concerns from "people who were fearful of big government [plucking] you off the street tomorrow" were unfounded. But he adds that the resolution hasn't had much impact on the way his officers do their job. "It basically affirms that we will not violate our oaths of office, which we wouldn't have done anyway."Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, the practical impact of such nonbinding resolutions is limited, legal experts say. In many cities, getting consensus on a city council means passing a resolution that "says nothing," says Sanchirico of Boise. And the Justice Department dismisses even the most strongly worded efforts, such as that of Arcata, Calif., which makes it a misdemeanor for local police officers to enforce the Patriot Act.
"[The resolutions] have absolutely no effect whatsoever on enforcement," says Mary Beth Buchanan, US attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania. "These resolutions do not stop law enforcement from doing what they need to do to protect the public."
Federal officials, however, blame the resolution sponsors for spreading what they call misinformation about the Patriot Act. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray told a congressional committee Oct. 21 that groups attacking the Patriot Act have "misled the public."
That concern spurred Attorney General John Ashcroft to launch a multicity speaking tour this summer and a new website, lifeandliberty.gov, which dispels what it characterizes as myths concerning the act. [Editor's note: The original version of this story included an incorrect URL.]
In particular, the Justice Department charges that opponents exaggerate the types of groups that may qualify as domestic terrorists, the likelihood that the government might snoop on citizens' reading habits, and the degree to which investigators can launch probes without a judge's approval.
"That is absolutely false," says Ms. Buchanan, who distributed a list of "10 myths about the Patriot Act" to federal prosecutors earlier this year. "For every new tool given to the government under the Patriot Act, there is a corresponding judicial oversight provided under the act."
Anti-Patriot Act groups portray the new powers more ominously. For example, the Chicago-land Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights has a scene from the movie of George Orwell's "1984" on its pamphlet cover, which charges that the Patriot Act violates four clauses in the Bill of Rights.
Part of the discrepancy, both sides acknowledge, is the act's complexity, coupled with secrecy surrounding how such powers are being used. Blake Ringsmuth, a civil rights lawyer in Traverse City, Mich., says the act is so confusing that most citizens don't have the skills to think critically about it. "To read it correctly, you have to have volumes and volumes of the US Code," he says.
In Washington, there are signs that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are having doubts about the Patriot Act, too. An amendment introduced by Representative Otter this past summer against "sneak and peak" searches overwhelmingly passed the House.
Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sens. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, and Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska has introduced several pieces of legislation designed to scale back the Patriot Act.
The legislation is endorsed by an ideologically diverse coalition of Washington interest groups ranging from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform to the liberal People for the American Way. Those groups usually have so little in common that a panel discussion this month that included both their presidents was labeled "Hell Freezes Over."
Meanwhile, the number of cities passing resolutions is growing - including Chicago, Huntington, W.Va.; and Sarasota, Fla., in the past month.