The anti-terrorism Patriot Act's possible effect on our civil liberties isn't simply a remote abstraction. Sometimes it can hit home.
In May, a lovesick young California woman, on board a cruise ship with her parents, planted threatening notes because she wanted to return home to her boyfriend. She's already been tried under the Patriot Act and is now serving a sentence in a federal prison for international terrorism.
That's one example of how the law, passed by Congress a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks, has been misused. A study by Congress' General Accounting Office found that 75 percent of the Justice Department's "international terrorism" convictions since 9-11 had nothing to do with terrorism.
So what's wrong with Justice using whatever tools it can to combat credit-card fraud, embezzlement, forgery, child porn and drug trafficking? It is stretching interpretations to expand the law's powers far beyond Congress' intent, with no end in sight. Nearly any offense can be prosecuted as terrorism. Even worse, some Patriot provisions seek to lessen or remove federal judges' oversight on search warrants, wiretaps and the like, and to remove "probable cause" as a requirement for searches. That puts Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure in peril.
The law also allows authorities to summarily seize such things as public libraries' lending records. Maybe that power hasn't yet been used with libraries, as Attorney General John Ashcroft recently claimed. But the point is that it easily could be.
Congress should resist recent suggestions that such provisions be extended past their 2005 "sunset" dates or made permanent. And it should reject Ashcroft's crusade to restore powers that were tossed out of the original Patriot bill, such as the easily abused "administrative subpoena."
But calls to repeal the act are misguided. "There are reasonable things in the Patriot Act," American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Timothy Edgar told Newhouse News Service. As we've pointed out, some parts actually strengthen our liberties - for example, restrictions on authorities' right to look at the content of electronic communications.
Nearly two years after the Patriot Act's passage, its strengths have become apparent, and its abuses have become obvious. Congress should refine the language so it becomes strictly a weapon to combat real terrorism, not a pen for the Justice Department to rewrite the Bill of Rights.
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