Group pushes for Patriot Act changes

Diverse coalition seeking to curtail some of law's more sweeping provisions

March 23, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Battle lines were drawn yesterday in the debate over the government's counterterrorism powers as an unlikely coalition of liberal civil-rights advocates, conservative libertarians, gun-rights supporters and medical privacy advocates expressed their objections to key parts of the law that expanded those powers after Sept. 11, 2001.

Keeping the law intact "will do great and irreparable harm" to the Constitution by allowing the government to investigate people's reading habits, search their homes without notice and pry into their personal lives, argued Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who is leading the coalition.

Barr voted for the law, known as the USA Patriot Act, in the House just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks but has become one of its leading critics, a shift that reflects the growing unease among some conservative libertarians over the expansion of the government's powers in fighting terrorism.

He joined with other conservatives as well as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union yesterday in announcing the creation of the coalition aimed at curtailing some of the law's more sweeping law-enforcement provisions.

But Bush administration officials reiterated their strong support for the law as an indispensable tool in tracking, following and arresting terrorist suspects. President Bush has prodded Congress repeatedly to extend critical parts of the law that are set to expire at year's end.

The coalition said it had no quarrel with most of the expanded counterterrorism tools that the Patriot Act provided, some of which amounted to modest upgrades in the government's ability to use modern technology in wiretapping phone calls and the like.

But the group said it would focus on urging Congress to scale back three provisions that let federal agents conduct "sneak and peek" searches of a home or business without immediately notifying the subject of such searches, demand records from institutions such as libraries and medical offices, and use a broad definition of terrorism in pursuing suspects.

The group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, said in a letter to Bush: "We agree that much of the Patriot Act is necessary to provide law enforcement with the resources they need to defeat terrorism, but we remain very concerned that some of its provisions go beyond its mission and infringe on the rights of law-abiding Americans, in ways that raise serious constitutional and practical concerns."

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