January 26, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH insists that the USA Patriot Act is an essential tool in America's war on terrorism. With provisions of the law to expire next year, he urged Congress last week to renew the act. The terrorist threat, he warned, has no expiration date. Now, if only Americans could be assured that they are indeed safer because of the law. That's the case the administration has failed to make.

The USA Patriot Act has come in for much criticism by civil libertarians and conservatives over provisions that allow broad search of business records, roving wiretaps and "sneak and peek" warrants in which agents can search a home without notifying the owner until later. But since its passage shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, some of the criticisms haven't held up. Unfettered access to library records offered critics plenty to rail about; however, that aspect of the law has never been used. Still, the Bush administration can't be absolved from its obligation to show why aspects of the law should remain. Playing the terrorism card won't suffice.

Justice Department figures show that convictions in terrorism cases increased from 110 to 879 in the two years since 9/11. That sounds impressive, but a review of those prosecutions by the Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse, a data research unit at Syracuse University, found that the majority of convictions were for relatively minor crimes. The median sentence for those deemed international terrorists was two weeks -- terrorists of consequence, they were not. The Justice Department also points to convictions of "terror cells" in upstate New York, Detroit and Portland, Ore. But experts have challenged the extent to which these defendants were terrorists planning a reprise of 9/11.

Another troubling aspect has been the department's use of Patriot Act provisions in nonterrorism cases, including a political corruption scandal involving Las Vegas officials and a big-time strip club operator and a deportation claim against two Palestinians accused of aiding a terrorist group 16 years ago. If law enforcement needs greater powers to prosecute in these areas, then it should say so.

Clearly, Americans are concerned about potential misuse of the Patriot Act -- more than 230 communities in 34 states have passed resolutions saying as much. At the same time, we take seriously President Bush's caution that terrorists operate on their own schedule, and that our commitment must be long term. But before the Patriot Act can be renewed in 2005, the administration has to be honest about the fruits of its offensive and the potential fallout. Americans must be confident that the government isn't taking liberties with their civil liberties under the banner of fighting terrorism.

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