Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Terrorists

Law: With its sweeping powers, the Patriot Act is increasingly coming under fire from broad spectrum of Americans.

November 02, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It seems impossible that something called the Patriot Act could manage to get a bad name for itself. But that's exactly what has happened to this legislation hastily passed in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

The act has had no more effective critics than America's librarians who, under its provisions, can be required to tell federal officials what books people are checking out.

Their rising ire tripped up the recent pro-Patriot Act speaking tour by Attorney General John Ashcroft, forcing him to go public with information he had classified saying federal law enforcement had not used these powers to go snooping in any libraries.

But the damage was done. Criticism of the Patriot Act has come from all parts of the political spectrum. Some 200 local governments have adopted resolutions opposing it. The attacks essentially sank a proposed Patriot Act II when its details were leaked earlier this year - though individual provisions have been proposed by the Bush administration.

In some cases, the criticism was aimed at provisions that were not in this 342-page legislation, but at other measures adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks in the name of fighting terrorism.

"I think in a sense the Patriot Act has become a symbol, shorthand for the concerns a broad array of people have about this administration's disregard for civil liberties in the war on terrorism," says David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University.

Michael Greenberger, of the University of Maryland School of Law, agrees. "I think there is massive opposition to the Patriot Act without people really understanding what the act is all about. That opposition is well justified ...

"The librarian issue, the idea of the FBI being able without a warrant to look and see what people are reading, that shocked a lot of people," he says. "But in my view, there are a lot of other potential abuses that are outside the Patriot Act itself."

Greenberger praises parts of the act aimed at combating money laundering. And, he says, its "intent of making the wall between intelligence gathering and gathering evidence of crimes is very helpful."

But, he says the way these parts have been interpreted by the Ashcroft Justice Department is dangerous. "Prosecutors essentially can gather criminal evidence - for which they usually need probable cause of a crime - by saying they need intelligence and therefore get permission to wiretap without probable cause."

Cole notes that those warrants - since they were obtained from a secret intelligence court - cannot be challenged when then used in criminal prosecutions. "They can never be subjected to adversarial proceedings, an essential safeguard," he says.

These and other provisions, give unprecedented powers to federal agents to snoop on citizens. "It was bait and switch," Cole says. "They used the rhetoric of anti-terrorism to enact laws that give the government power in investigations that have nothing to do with terrorism."

What concerns Cole, though, is that there are so few voices raised against provisions of the Patriot Act aimed at foreign nationals. Author of the new book Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism, he says vigilance needs to be paid to provisions aimed at aliens.

"When the focus is on foreign nationals, all too many of us have stood silently by," he says. "But if you look at history, what the government has done to foreign nationals in the name of security always gets extended to citizens. So it is a mistake to believe that restrictions on foreign nationals will not affect citizens' rights down the line."

He points to provisions in the act that can keep foreigners out of the country based purely on their speech, and another that allows deportation if an alien, even a permanent resident, associates with a group on a terrorism black list.

"This resurrects the ideological exclusion practice of the McCarthy era," he says. "It resurrects guilt by association."

Some of the biggest effects of post-Sept. 11 security measures are being felt on college and university campuses as foreign students face heightened visa restrictions - something not directly addressed by the Patriot Act, though it does contain extensive reporting requirements for schools with foreign students.

For most, the problem is simply logistical - the United States now requires an in-person interview for most visas. Scheduling one can take weeks.

"The consulates were actually told not to put on any additional staff or overtime," says Murray G. Welsh, director of the international students office at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "With increased interviews, no additional staff, no overtime, there are delays. As a consequence, students miss the first week of class, or the first month, or travel home for vacation and get stuck and miss the entire semester."

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