Patriot Act, Part II: The political tug of war intensifies
Bush calls for strengthening the antiterror law, while critics worry about greater potential for civil-rights abuses.
WASHINGTON — In seemingly short order, discussion around the Patriot Act has shifted from defense to offense.
Just two months ago, when Congress set out to consider renewal of the antiterrorism law, civil libertarians were hopeful they could rein in aspects that they felt went too far. Now, supporters of an enhanced Patriot Act appear to be making headway as they push to give the FBI new powers.
Thursday, President Bush weighed in on the side of a beefed-up Patriot Act, including making permanent the 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year and giving FBI agents new powers. In a speech at the Ohio Patrol Training Academy in Columbus, he called on Congress to renew the act's temporary provisions.
"For the state of our national security, Congress must not rebuild a wall between law enforcement and intelligence," he said.
Columbus, Ohio, was selected as the site for Bush's speech for a reason: It was two years ago that Columbus truck-driver Lyman Faris pleaded guilty to charges of aiding terrorism and conspiracy. Now serving a 20-year prison sentence, Mr. Faris allegedly met with Osama bin Laden in 2000 and provided material aid to Al Qaeda members. Faris was also accused of plotting to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge and blow up an Ohio shopping mall.
According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, the Patriot Act was instrumental in gathering information that led Faris to cooperate. The academy where Bush spoke was part of the joint terrorism task force that worked on the Faris case.
On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation that would renew and expand the Patriot Act. One new provision would allow FBI agents to write subpoenas without going before a judge, under certain circumstances. The FBI would also gain expanded authority to monitor mail in terrorism cases.
Opponents of an enhanced Patriot Act are caught in a paradox that makes it difficult for them to prove that abuses have occurred, because of the secret elements of the law. Civil liberties advocates from both parties are concerned that people's rights are being violated without their knowing it, because under certain controversial provisions, organizations whose records have been seized are barred by law from informing the person under investigation.
Though there are no documented cases of abuse under the Patriot Act, civil libertarians argue that without an independent investigation, that can't be verified. The inspector general of the Department of Justice found that of 7,000 complaints, none could be substantiated.
"We're relying on the department itself to tell us whether they have abused the law," says Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union. "But we've certainly found throughout history, having a truly independent investigation is the only way to get to the bottom of things." She cites the case of Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim lawyer in Portland, Ore., as one pending case of potential abuse. Because of a misidentified fingerprint, he was erroneously linked last year to the terrorist train bombing in Madrid, but US authorities have yet to return materials that were seized in the case.
Working in the administration's favor is that the combative John Ashcroft is no longer attorney general. Now, the genial Alberto Gonzales is the face of the administration, testifying before Congress and introducing Bush at the Columbus event.
In April, during congressional testimony, Gonzales for the first time revealed statistics on how often certain controversial provisions of the Patriot Act have been employed. The "sneak and peek" warrant, which allows authorities to delay notification of a search until well after it has taken place, had been used 155 times, or in 1 percent of all searches, he said.
Section 215, which is used to obtain information about drivers' licenses, leases, and other personal data, had been used 35 times, but never in libraries. Ms. Graves of the ACLU says that figure leaves open the possibility that personal records have been accessed in other ways.
For Bush, focusing on the war on terror - and the fact that there have been no attacks on US soil since 9/11 - provides a respite from other areas of his agenda that have fared less well, such as Social Security and Iraq. Still, the latest polling indicates that even on homeland security, his approval rating has sagged. In part, pollsters say, that is probably because fighting terror has receded in importance, now behind the economy, Iraq, healthcare, and Social Security, according to a new ABC News-Washington Post poll.