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US 'Patriot Act' Anti-Terror Law Raises Civil Liberties Fears - 2003-07-07

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a law called the USA Patriot Act, which gives federal investigators more powers to root out terrorists. But the act has been controversial from the beginning, and has sparked activism among those who feel it infringes on civil rights. Carolyn Weaver has more.

Carrboro, North Carolina, is a traditional old mill town, where the town barber still cuts hair for the old-fashioned price of $5. It’s hardly a hotbed of anti-government activism, yet some residents fear the federal Patriot Act threatens their constitutional rights.

“The Patriot Act passed overwhelmingly in the hysteria following the September 11th tragedy, and I don’t think the American public has had a chance to digest the sweeping ramifications,” said Carrboro resident Mark Dorison. “We’re all patriots. We’re all against terrorism. We all believe in protecting our country,” said another townsman at a local discussion. “Are you really afraid the FBI is going to break into your house?” a reporter asked one of the Carrboro activists. “If they can do it someone else, they can do it to me,” he answered. “This is terrifying,” said a woman, adding that she does not trust the government.

Carrboro’s residents were most worried about the government’s new right under the Patriot Act to conduct secret searches of homes and workplaces. So, with a vote of the town council, Carrboro became one of about 100 cities and towns around the country that have passed “Bill of Rights defense” resolutions.

The measure asks federal investigators who visit the town to report to Carrboro’s city leaders and explain their business. It also directs local police to preserve residents’ rights and to stand in the way of any unreasonable searches or seizures. The debate over the Patriot Act extends well beyond Carrboro. In Washington, Georgetown University law professor David Cole is a leading opponent. “It gives the attorney general the power to lock up foreign nationals simply by certification without showing they’re actually dangerous or a flight risk,” he said. “It gives the FBI the ability to get library records, bookstore records on individuals without showing that they’re actually suspected of engaging in any criminal, much less terrorist activity. It gives the government the power to conduct secret searches and secret wiretaps in criminal cases without probable cause of criminal activity, which is what the Constitution minimally requires before you can conduct a wiretap or a search.”

But also on the Georgetown University Law faculty is Professor Viet Dinh, who was responsible for drafting the Patriot Act as a Justice Department official. He contends that the Act gives government only the powers needed to prevent another 9/11.

“I happen to think there’s a lot of misinformation, at times there’s a lot of disinformation, surrounding the USA Patriot Act, which is rather unfortunately and Orwellianly named,” Professor Dinh said in an interview. “But once one separates the rhetoric from the truth, the hysteria from the facts, I think it becomes very clear that there is nothing that is threatening to Constitutional rights, and certainly nothing that is invasive of civil liberties of America that is contained in the USA Patriot Act, that those questions that are legitimate are also very persuasively and legitimately well-answered by the very carefully drafted and well-calibrated provisions of the Patriot Act.”

And at a recent Congressional hearing, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft testified that the Act was essential in fighting terrorism. “Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act,” he said. “It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists.”

Viet Dinh says the most significant change introduced by the Patriot Act is coordination between U.S. intelligence, defense and crime-fighting agencies. “It gives the law enforcement community the ability to communicate effectively and collaborate our actions with the intelligence community and the national defense community,” he said. “All hands were called to be on deck after 9/11 in order to prevent terrorism, and yet the law prohibited those hands from communicating with each other. The left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. The USA Patriot Act made a very fundamental change in the law that allowed for effective communication and collaboration among the various persons who are involved in counter-terrorism.”

Opponents are now concerned about what may follow the Patriot Act. Last spring, David Cole reviewed a draft proposal under consideration at the Justice Department, which won’t comment on it. But the draft contained proposals that alarmed both liberal and even some conservative groups. “It authorizes for the first time ever secret arrests, where the government can go out and pick people up, lock them up, take them off the streets, and not acknowledge that to the public,” said Professor Cole. “It also gives the government the power to strip U.S. citizens of their citizenship if they are accused of associating with or supporting groups that we designate as terrorist, again without any showing that the people are actually connected to terrorist activity of any kind. So, it turns citizens into non-nationals. It also gives the attorney general essentially unchecked authority to deport any foreign national that he picks without having to show that that individual actually engaged in any illegal activity.”

Public opinion polls reflect concern that civil liberties be protected in the search for terrorists. When we asked people visiting Washington, D.C., what they thought, not everyone had heard of the Patriot Act, but when we explained it, reaction was mixed.

“I think if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t be bothered by inspections or whatever. It wouldn’t bother me if they wanted to check me anywhere I’m at,” said a man from Tennesee. A student from North Carolina said, “I think it’s a good thing, it protects us, it’s sort of better for our country, and almost for the world, too.”

Another student disagreed: “The Patriot Act scares me a little,” he said. “I think George Bush and John Ashcroft are using scare tactics to scare the American people into using the Patriot Act to erode civil liberties.” “We wouldn’t have any civil rights if we didn’t get ourselves protected through this act at this particular time in history,” said a woman from Virginia. But a young man visiting from Florida was skeptical, asking, “Who’s going to police the police, or who’s going to watch the government if the government’s making these decisions to watch everyone else?”

The USA Patriot Act is set to expire at the end of 2005. But observers expect the Bush administration to propose new legislation that will keep many of its provisions in effect or widen them.

Some scenes from this video report provided by ABC-TV.