An unlikely alliance of liberal and conservative groups is joining forces to urge Congress to make some changes in the sweeping anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act.
Congress passed the Patriot Act not long after the terrorist attacks that shook the nation and the world on September 11, 2001.
The act made it easier for law enforcement agencies to monitor terrorist suspects and removed bureaucratic barriers that had limited the sharing of information between criminal investigators and intelligence agencies.
At the same time, the Patriot Act sparked criticism from both the political left and right that the new monitoring powers were too intrusive.
Now, an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative groups is urging Congress to make some changes in the Patriot Act when it comes up for renewal in the House and Senate later this year. Several parts of the law related to surveillance powers are due to expire at the end of the year unless extended by Congress.
Bob Barr is a former Republican congressman from Georgia. He voted for the Patriot Act in 2001 but now supports changes that would limit the ability of federal agents to gather personal information in the pursuit of terrorist suspects.
"The problem is that some of its provisions, those that we are discussing here today, go beyond number one, what is necessary to successfully fight acts of terrorism," he said, "and, secondly, if allowed to continue, will do great and irreparable harm to the 4th Amendment [prohibits unreasonable search and seizure] to the Constitution of the United States of America, which is the underpinning of the basic notion of privacy in our system of government."
Mr. Barr is chairman of a new group called Patriots To Restore Checks and Balances. Other conservative groups involved in the effort include the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the American Conservative Union.
Traditionally liberal groups are also involved.
"It permits zealous or ideologically motivated government agents to co-opt the definition of domestic terrorism in the Patriot Act to permit the use of special invasive measures against public demonstrators," said Laura Murphy, who is with the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has long criticized parts of the Patriot Act. "Terrorism laws must target terrorists, not critics of government policy."
The coalition to change the Patriot Act has written to President Bush asking that he be open to their suggestions to change the law.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently praised the Patriot Act as an important tool in the war on terrorism. He also said the administration would be willing to consider some minor changes to the Patriot Act.
"If some have suggestions for improvements that will make America safer, I would be interested in hearing those," he said. "But mindful of the tragedy of September 11th, I will not support changes that would make America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks."
The new secretary for Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, recently said that the government must do a better job of respecting civil liberties as it goes after suspected terrorists.
During a speech in Washington, Secretary Chertoff described the war on terrorism as more of a marathon than a sprint.
"We will earn the public trust when we demonstrate that the information we do collect and the measures we do implement are tailored to the goals of preserving security and do not creep beyond that mission," he said. "Our ultimate goal is a time when security measures are a comfortable, convenient part of our routine, a time when people go about their daily lives mindful of risks but not encumbered by fear."
Discussions between the White House and Congress on renewing the Patriot Act are likely to begin soon, with congressional votes expected before the end of the year.