By Kevin Mooney
Patriot Act Supporters See Success; Detractors Disagree
Tue Sep 12, 2006 23:32

Patriot Act Supporters See Success; Detractors Disagree
By Kevin Mooney Staff Writer
September 11, 2006

( - Critics of the USA Patriot Act warn that Americans' civil liberties are under assault, but national security experts see a strong correlation between new counter-terrorism laws and the absence of additional attacks since 9/11.

Proponents of the Patriot Act say heightened surveillance and tighter coordination between intelligence operatives and law enforcement officials is working to keep terrorists at bay.

Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow specializing in defense and homeland security for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Cybercast News Service the "scaremongering" rhetoric used by critics has greatly harmed political discourse and detracted from the meaningful contributions the Patriot Act has made to counter-terrorism.

The demolition of communications barriers between government agencies has been particularly effective, Carafano said. Nevertheless, the criticism directed at the Patriot Act has not abated.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for instance, continues to devote comprehensive coverage to specific sections of the Patriot Act it finds particularly objectionable in a special section of its website.

In the past few years, the ACLU also has helped craft resolutions in cities and municipalities that express opposition to the Patriot Act.

The language used in the resolutions frequently invokes historical antecedents for legislation the ACLU views as being injurious to the Bill of Rights. As a case in point, the Vermont Legislature calls the Patriot Act "the greatest challenge to civil liberties since passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has written a defense of the Patriot Act on its "Life and Liberty" website. The DOJ directly takes on many of the arguments put forth by the ACLU and other critics.

One of the central arguments made in defense of the Patriot Act is that it simply gives investigators the ability to apply certain techniques against terrorists that are already used against organized crime and drug trafficking.

Carafano said this new authorization encompasses highly effective law enforcement tactics such as delayed-notification warrants, business record surveillance and wiretaps, which he said are constitutional and appropriate.

Anthony Gregory, a research analyst with the Independent Institute based in Oakland, Calif., acknowledged that the Patriot Act is merely extending authorization for pre-existing practices. Nevertheless, he feels the techniques cited by the DOJ are unconstitutional, even when they are used in non-terror cases.

Gregory also concurs with the nod to history on the part of civil libertarians and said the comparisons with restrictive legislation such as the Alien and Sedition laws are both appropriate and instructive.

An ardent opponent of the Patriot Act, Gregory feels the measure was "rammed through Congress" in the immediate weeks following 9/11 without meaningful debate and has led to a dangerous imbalance between constitutional liberties and law enforcement authority.

"No one [in Congress] actually read it," he said.

The Patriot Act did clear both houses of Congress by substantial margins and was signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 26, 2001.

Carafano disagrees with critics who suggest the Patriot Act has escaped sufficient scrutiny. He pointed out that the law was on the receiving end of "extensive hearings" when it was re-authorized earlier this year and that it contains oversight features that are not included in most other law enforcement-related legislation.

The burden of proof is on critics, Carafano said, since "there has not been one significant proven abuse of the Patriot Act" five years after it was initially authorized. Moreover, he claimed, government officials using the tools made available through the Patriot Act have successfully disrupted at least 15 different terrorist conspiracies inside the U.S.

A reduction in the number of arrests is also proof of the Patriot Act's success, Carafano argued, because investigators can use the tools provided by the law to quickly eliminate suspects who are accused but not guilty of terrorist activity.

The new tools make it possible for investigators to move with greater speed and efficiency in determining whether or not certain groups or individuals are indeed a threat.

Nevertheless, civil libertarians on both sides of the political spectrum and policy experts like Gregory are convinced the Patriot Act is open to exploitation by overzealous government agents.

Former Congressman Robert Barr (R-Ga.) helped organize self-described conservatives and progressives into a new coalition united in their opposition toward certain features of the Patriot Act.

"Like any government program, [the Patriot Act] is being used beyond its original purposes and what it was advertised for," Gregory said.

Specifically, Gregory pointed to actions taken against online gambling and payment services as examples of government officials applying the Patriot Act in a manner that was not originally conceived.

Gregory also said the surveillance techniques made possible through the Patriot Act now allow government officials to spy on peaceful political activists.

The revisions made to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) are a particular source of consternation for critics who feel the Patriot Act provides the executive branch with too much latitude in the realm of surveillance.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security recently held a hearing on pending updates and modifications FISA to accommodate new technologies.

The proposals include: H.R. 5825 sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.); S. 2453 introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.); S. 2455 introduced by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio); H.R. 5371 sponsored by Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.); H.R. 4976 sponsored by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.); and H.R. 5223 sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Carafano said it is important to update the law so modern technologies that were not anticipated in 1978 -- such as cell phones, electronic mail, fax machines and answering machines -- do not become sanctuaries for terrorists


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