Fog finally lifting on the Patriot Act

April 13, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the USA Patriot Act, reviving the long-running debate over the anti-terrorism law enacted after 9/11. A statement issued by the U.S. Justice Department said that "most of the voluminous Patriot Act is actually unobjectionable from a civil liberties point of view" and that "the law makes important changes that give law enforcement agents the tools they need to protect against terrorist attacks."

Oops. My mistake. That statement didn't come from the administration. It came from the American Civil Liberties Union.

For more than three years, critics have portrayed the Patriot Act as a ferocious assault on individual liberty and personal privacy. But with several provisions of the law set to expire at the end of 2005, it turns out that even the strongest critics don't want to change all that much.

It's hard to think of a law with a worse reputation than this one. No fewer than 377 communities, and five states, have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act. Some have even urged public libraries and bookstores to destroy records that might be requested by the government under one controversial provision.

But the danger posed by this law has always been largely mythical.

Some parts of the law drew intense fire. One was the "sneak-and-peek" section, which allows law enforcement agents to enter a home to inspect papers, computers and the like, without informing the owner in advance. You would never know that the FBI and police have used such warrants for decades in criminal cases, such as that of Mafia boss John Gotti. Nor would you know that these warrants are issued only if judges find there is a good reason to delay notification - to prevent a suspect from fleeing, to preserve evidence or to avoid other damage to an investigation.

If sneak-and-peek searches were a horrible abuse, you'd expect the critics to demand they be abolished. In fact, the ACLU and its allies only want to slightly narrow the conditions under which they are allowed.

Then there is the section that lets federal agents obtain library records. But no one complained when the FBI investigated what had been checked out of a Montana library by suspected Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who was eventually convicted.

Here again, the point of the Patriot Act was to allow methods used against ordinary criminals to be used against foreign terrorists. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said last week that the Patriot Act has never been used to subpoena library records.

He still wants to keep this provision in case it's ever needed. And even the critics only want to "refine" this section "by requiring some individualized suspicion," as the ACLU says.

That's a debatable position, but it's also a thoughtful and balanced one - taking into account not only the need to protect privacy but the need to prevent a repetition of 9/11. Maybe it's the beginning of a more sober assessment of a law that federal prosecutors see as a vital weapon against terrorism.

It would have been nice if we could have had a rational debate about the real Patriot Act and the real problems it addresses. But better late than never.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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