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The War Against Terror and Constitutional Rights of Ordinary Americans

The U.S. Senate last week voted to continue debate on renewal of several controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, a law that has given investigators legal authority to hunt down suspected terrorists. Those provisions, which deal with foreign intelligence and law enforcement surveillance, are set to expire on December 31st.

However, critics say those measures can also be used to violate the privacy rights of ordinary Americans. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports that PATRIOT Act debate is part of a broader discussion in America about the proper balance between security and liberty.

The debate in Congress about the PATRIOT Act was anticipated more than two centuries ago by one of the nation's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who said, "They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Arguing for renewal of the Act, President Bush has been mindful of Franklin's admonition.

"It is critical to saving American lives,” said the president. “The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and constitution to protect them and their civil liberties."

However, at a White House news conference on Monday, Mr. Bush said that the war on terror demands extraordinary degrees of speed and secrecy.

"The protection of sources, and the protection of methods, and how we use information to understand the nature of the enemy -- is secret. And the reason it's secret is because, if it's not secret, the enemy knows about it, and if the enemy knows about it, it adjusts."

But even some of the President's staunch supporters are skeptical. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says the President may be violating constitutional requirements for prior judicial authorization for searches or wiretaps, as well as independent oversight of the government's executive branch.

"I reject the idea that any president can sit down with a handful of congressmen and deal the courts out if the law requires the court to be involved,” said Mr. Graham. “It's about the process. It's not about the politics. It is about winning the war, adhering to the values that we're fighting for. And you can't set those values aside in the name of expediency."

Civil libertarians fear that certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act could violate the privacy rights of American citizens. One of those provisions, for example, allows investigators easier access to books, records and documents used by suspected terrorists. Critics say the same provision could inhibit use of libraries by ordinary citizens who fear that the government may be recording who reads what.

Emily Sheketoff, an executive at the American Library Association, says people use libraries in ways that the government could misconstrue as dangerous.

"So that whether you're interested in a second opinion because a family member has cancer, or you're interested in some chemical process because you're about to move next to a factory that uses that process, or you're interested in some obscure fact in Islam -- you get that at the library," said Ms. Sheketoff.

Last week, the New York Times newspaper reported that the President authorized a U.S. intelligence agency to conduct domestic spying without a court order on as many as 500 Americans. Mr. Bush insists no laws were broken, but the report prompted an angry response on Capitol Hill.

Senator Arlen Spector of the Republican Party said, "It's inexcusable to have spying on people in the United States without court surveillance, in violation of our law beyond any questions."

Added Senator Edward Kennedy of the Democratic Party, "This administration feels it's above the law, and the American people and our Constitution pay the price."

The proper balance between liberty and security will come up again early next year when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the administration's eavesdropping program. Senator Spector chairs that committee.