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US Civil Liberties Groups Criticize Anti-Terrorism Laws - 2003-05-02

With Iraq now free of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration is expected to refocus on terrorism as the main threat to homeland security. At the same time, civil liberties groups around the country are gearing up to oppose any administration efforts to expand a sweeping set of anti-terrorism laws that they contend give the U.S. government too much power to monitor its own citizens.

Not long ago, the small city of Arcata in northern California became the first community in the nation to pass a law that forbids voluntary compliance with the Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terrorism law passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack.

Arcata City Councilman David Meserve said the law instructs local officials not to cooperate with federal authorities who make requests under the Patriot Act.

"I think, the message is that we feel that the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act and some of the executive orders over the past couple of years have severely eroded the Constitution, and we have both the right and the duty as a municipality to stand up for the Constitution," said Mr. Meserve. "Because after all, the Constitution was written as a compact to secure the rights of people and the states."

The Patriot Act was quickly approved by Congress in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It provides police and prosecutors with new tools in the fight against terrorism, making it easier to monitor or detain those suspected of having terrorist links.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the Patriot Act has been crucial in helping federal authorities foil dozens of potential terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001.

"We are arresting and detaining potential terrorist threats," said Mr. Ashcroft. "We are dismantling the terrorist financial network and we are disrupting potential terrorist travel, and we are building our long-term counter-terrorism capacity. We are winning the war on terrorism."

But civil liberties groups claim the cost of winning the war on terrorists at home may be too high.

"I think, in general, people feel a certain sense of being chilled in exercising their constitutional rights," said Timothy Edgar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "They know that if they go to a library, that the standard for [authorities] getting those library records has been lowered. They know that their home could be the subject of a search, without their getting notice. They know that it is possible, and that means that they are a little more careful about what they say or do, and we think that that kind of incremental loss of freedom makes our country less free and a less democratic society."

Bush administration officials insist the terror threat targeting the United States is real and that the Patriot Act is a necessary legal tool to monitor those suspected of having links with terrorist groups.

Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge says the United States is safer because Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. But he says the main threat continues to be international terrorism.

"Though we have disarmed a dictator and his supporters, terrorism, in all its forms, in all its followers, is still a real and daily threat to this country and countries around the world," he said.

Bush administration officials insist there are constitutional safeguards in the new anti-terror laws that protect civil liberties and the right to privacy.

Secretary Ridge says civil liberties and privacy monitors in his department are working to make sure that the effort to make the United States more secure does not trample constitutional rights.

"I think America needs to be assured that these men and women will be very much a part of the Department of Homeland Security, so that everything we do that touches on those areas will be vetted before we move ahead," he explained.

Despite that assurance, Arcata City Councilman David Meserve says he has been contacted by a number of towns and cities asking for advice on countering the Patriot Act.

"Getting the word out about the dangers, I've had a response from cities all over the country, you know, wanting information and wanting to know how we went about it, and wanting suggestions as to how they might go about it in their towns," said Mr. Meserve.

Civil liberties activists are also gearing up to oppose the expansion of the Patriot Act that the Bush administration is expected to submit to Congress soon. The administration says it has not finalized its proposal for additional anti-terror laws, but civil liberties groups were alarmed by the leak of a draft proposal early this year that would expand the government's power to conduct telephone wiretaps and, in some cases, revoke citizenship.