Real patriotism

It has taken awhile, but serious and principled opposition to renewing parts of the USA Patriot Act is growing in the form of an improbable coalition that includes some of Washington’s leading conservatives, the ACLU, gun rights groups, libertarians and medical privacy activists.

One thing is for sure, the coalition with former Georgia congressman Bob Barr at its head is not going to be outflanked on the right, not with a name like Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.

The Patriot Act was passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and this time the act’s backers will be unable to avail themselves of the argument that the law’s critics were, if not actually abetting terrorism, at least tying the president’s hands in the fight. It was nonsense, of course, but they were emotional times.

Parts of the Patriot Act “sunset” after five years, meaning they will expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews. The Bush administration would like to see them made permanent, but maintaining the sunset provisions insures that Congress, at least once every five years, will reexamine how those provisions are working.

The coalition is targeting three specific provisions in the act.

One is “sneak and peek” that allows federal law enforcement officers to secretly search a home or office and copy or seize materials without informing the target of the search until perhaps months later. Another allows the government, with very little oversight, to secretly examine records _ medical, financial, library, business _ held by institutions. The coalition believes these two impinge on Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The third provision is what the coalition believes is an overly broad definition of terrorism. Conservative groups worry that the Patriot Act could be used against anti-abortion demonstrators. The ACLU has already said it suspects the administration of using an elastic definition of “support of terrorism” to deny visas to foreign academics with whom it disagrees.

The coalition asks Congress in debating the sunset provisions to satisfy itself that the courts are adequately supervising federal surveillance authority; that investigative resources are indeed being devoted to terrorism “instead of everybody else;” and that privacy rights are being respected.

This is only asking Congress to do its job.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)