In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a resolute Congress overwhelmingly approved President’s Bush’s request for granting much tougher powers to police to prevent a reoccurrence.
While some in Congress and the civil liberties movement objected to some provisions in the president’s proposal as invasions of individual rights, Congress enacted the Patriot Act within six weeks of the 9/11 attacks.
Its concession to the individual liberties concerns was to “sunset” about a tenth of the law, that is to say, several controversial sections would be taken off the books at the end of 2005 unless re-enacted.
Facing that deadline, Congress is set to start the process of re-enacting the Patriot Act.
The chairmen of the judiciary committees, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in the Senate, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., in the House, said they anticipate that the separate chambers will pass slightly difference versions of the legislation in July. Differences are to be ironed out so that the Senate and House can pass a single final version in September.
The plan for re-enactment could be skewed if the Senate gets locked into a major battle over a Supreme Court vacancy.
Civil liberties activists hope that the Senate will modify several Patriot Act provisions and put pressure on House GOP leaders to roll back parts of the legislation, perhaps inserting a new “sunset” requirement.
However, after the London bombings, the mood on Capitol Hill appears to be full speed ahead toward making the post-9/11 law permanent and perhaps even toughening it, according to House Republican aides.
“Most Americans will say that giving more power to the police won’t affect my life, but it could stop the people who want to kill me,” said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
But others see a hesitation on Capitol Hill about putting the tradeoffs between civil liberty and security into permanent law.
“The London events may make it more difficult for a full-scale cutting back on the act, but the current mood is nothing like the hothouse of the fall of 2001,” said David Ryden, a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
“Absent some event that would return us to that mood, I do think there will be a thoughtful revisiting of the act, with three-plus years of experience to serve as a backdrop,” Ryden said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, regarded as a top candidate to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court as the successor to the departing Sandra Day O’Connor, is leading the effort to re-enact the Patriot Act in full.
“The battle over Justice O’Connor’s replacement may steal some of the attention that otherwise would be given to the Patriot Act,” Jarvis said. “If a hardliner is confirmed, any challenge to the act would be much harder to win.”
But civil liberties groups have not given up. While some would like to scrap a big hunk of the measure, the focus is on removing a few provisions of the current law that civil libertarians contend have led to abuses and threaten fundamental freedom.
“Some of the Patriot Act’s provisions go far beyond providing law enforcement with the resources it needs to defeat terrorism,” said former Georgia House Republican Bob Barr. “We do not see the need for provisions that infringe on the rights of law-abiding Americans in ways that raise serious constitutional and practical concerns.”
The flawed provisions, according to Barr, allow the imprisonment of U.S. citizens without access to their families or an attorney, indefinite detention of immigrants, secret search warrants, interception of e-mails and seizure of assets without notice.
Barr warned in an interview that the government is taking away the Bill of Rights, and he warned that individual rights could be lost forever if Congress does not put the brakes on now.
According to Barr, chairman of a coalition called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, the government can now secretly search homes and collect personal data such as medical, library and financial records.
“Conservatives, in particular, should be deeply concerned about the sweep of such far-reaching powers, which can be wielded by a president on either side of the ideological divide,” Barr said.