Not-so-patriotic act

March 13, 2006

Wisely, President Bush didn't dwell on how the updated - and still misnamed - Patriot Act he signed into law last week would "safeguard the civil liberties of our people," because it doesn't. Despite a year of wrangling, and a few grand moments in the Senate, the final version of the measure imposes no meaningful restraints on the vast power Congress granted the government to spy on its own citizens in the fear-ridden wake of the 9/11 attacks. In some ways, the new law is worse.

Not even the secret seizure of library, medical and business records without probable cause was adequately addressed, though American communities found that provision so offensive that nearly 400 so far have registered formal protests, including Baltimore, Greenbelt and Takoma Park.

So the job isn't done. And it won't be unless outraged citizens demand it.

Lawmakers are betting that if forced to make a choice, Americans will favor security over liberty, haunted as they are by a post-9/11 fearfulness recently on display in the frenzy over the prospect of an Arab-owned company running some U.S. port operations.

Senators demanding greater privacy protections gained traction late last year when it was revealed that the Bush administration has been secretly wiretapping Americans for years without any sort of court approval. In the end, though, nearly all settled for minor concessions from Mr. Bush that leave the worst features of the Patriot Act intact.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has offered new legislation that would demand evidence of a link to a foreign power before library, business and medical records could be obtained; eliminate a one-year period before gag orders on requests for such records could be challenged in court; and require that the target of a "sneak and peek" search warrant be notified within seven days of its execution.

Now that the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act have been restored, though, pressure for further action is off. Senator Specter's bill is likely to languish unless umbrage at the needless intrusion into the lives of innocent Americans makes itself heard.

As the Bush administration has proved, governments grow arrogant when their powers are unchecked. They start to think they can do whatever they want because they want to. This attitude is neither Republican nor Democratic. But it is very dangerous to the free and open democracy the war on terror was launched to protect.

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