Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It is ironic that the USA Patriot Act, enacted just six weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, contains some provisions that seem to abridge certain constitutional rights.
These flaws either were ignored or trivialized when the measure was enacted, and the need to correct them remains a matter of great importance.
Instead, as he said in his State of the Union address, President Bush wants Congress to renew the act as is rather than permit several of its provisions to “sunset” at the end of next year.
There’s no good reason to make a decision on sunsets quite yet; Congress would do better to reassess the act in an open debate sometime in early 2005.
Meantime, several of the flaws contained in the original measure do deserve the prompt attention of Congress, beginning with the House Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis.
A worthy reform bill called the Security and Freedom Ensured Act would rein in the federal government’s immense power under the Patriot Act but wouldn’t undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement.
The SAFE bill has united activists on the political left and right: Senators such as Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., John Sununu, R-N.H., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and organizations such as the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Perhaps the most odious feature of the USA Patriot Act is Section 215.
It allows the FBI to order any person or organization to surrender “any tangible thing” – including library, medical and financial records – so long as the agency certified that the order was part of an investigation against terrorism or secret intelligence activities.
The FBI is not required to supply any reason for believing that the target of the investigation is a criminal.
The SAFE bill would not repeal Section 215, but it would require the government to show “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe” that the target of the search is a suspected terrorist or a spy.
The change would not cripple the fight against terrorism; instead, it would require the FBI to focus its attention on criminal suspects, not law-abiding citizens.
SAFE also addresses “sneak and peek” searches authorized by Section 213 of the law.
This section authorizes government agents to sneak into a person’s home when the occupant is away, conduct a search and remove evidence, yet not have to inform the occupant until much later.
The reform bill would not ban such searches, but it would require a showing that such stealth is required to satisfy common-sense goals – to preserve evidence, for instance, or to prevent the escape of a criminal suspect.
In essence, the reform would reinstate provisions that existed before the Patriot Act was enacted.
The USA Patriot Act codified a number of long-overdue changes in law enforcement, one of which saved the life of an elderly Walworth County woman whose kidnapper was traced to cell phone records, reports U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic.
Another feature of the law knocks down walls that prevented government agencies from sharing essential information.
The SAFE bill does not challenge these changes.
Rather, it addresses blatant flaws that resulted from the hasty drafting of the Patriot Act and that probably would have been deleted had the measure been fully scrutinized by Congress.
Now, more than two years later, it’s long past time to repair this law.