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We’ll survive Patriot Act just fine

Should the Patriot Act be renamed the DCLA (Dissolution of Civil Liberties Act)? How many of us have read the entire act, as compared to the Cliff Notes version in the weekly news magazines or even worse, the snippets that Dan Blather and his friends tell us about in carefully chosen sound bites?

War has always had an effect on civil liberties. Worried about a war with France in 1798, Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Act forbidding anyone to print, utter or publish anything false, scandalous or malicious against the government. America survived.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus so suspected Confederates could be jailed without trial. America survived.

Following Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese Americans. America survived.

And during the early days of the Cold War, suspected communists were jailed for teaching subversive doctrine. Again, America survived.

There is considerable disagreement regarding the balance between national security and civil liberties, but the Patriot Act has become a convenient pincushion for those who disagree with the administration’s counter-terrorism efforts.

Our founding fathers recognized the dangers of too much power in the hands of the executive branch, and our Constitution has checks and balances. Yet some non-thinking partisan groups attack the act simply because it comes from this administration.

Neither the Congress nor the Justice Department gave the Bush administration a free hand regarding the act. In fact, much of the act authorized identical law enforcement activities in foreign intelligence cases (i.e. roving wiretaps) that already existed for criminal cases.

The act now makes it easier for police to obtain a warrant regarding a suspect’s voice messages. Another provision allows for a single nationwide search warrant in terrorism cases, eliminating the need for separate warrants in multiple jurisdictions.

In effect, much of the act’s purpose is to eliminate the burdensome red tape in investigating terrorism suspects.

The power to detain any non-citizen suspected of terrorism indefinitely was roundly dismissed by Congress. In his State of the Union message, the president told the nation that much of the act has sunset provisions and many powers (including the provision regarding library records) will expire at the end of 2005. Also, recall that the Senate passed the Patriot Act by a vote of 98-1. This is not a neo-Nazi crackdown by John Ashcroft, as the hysterical Bush bashers would have us believe.

For whatever reason the access to library records provision has caused the most stir among the populace, probably due to misinformation from the media. Did you know that prior to 9/11 a prosecutor investigating a crime during a grand jury proceeding could inspect your bank or library records simply by signing a subpoena? At least the Patriot Act requires approval by a judge to do the same thing in foreign intelligence cases.

Much has been written about how Bill Clinton rejected an offer from the Sudanese government to hand over bin Laden. But what gets very little press is that the Clinton administration feared that it lacked sufficient evidence and the means to acquire it to prosecute bin Laden, so it declined to accept him. Had the Patriot Act been in effect during the Clinton administration, the handling of the Sudanese-bin Laden matter may have been totally different.

The uninformed will tell us that the Patriot Act was a “knee-jerk” reaction to 9/11. I think it was more an exigent reaction to the events of that day, and thus far it appears that our constitutional set of checks and balances are working. The U.S. government and our Constitution have survived a multitude of threats for over 200 years and will continue to do so, but we must keep in mind that today’s problems require different solutions from those that have worked in the past.

The American justice system is far from perfect, but the Patriot Act is not an assault on civil liberties. Is it better to free 100 guilty men than to convict 1 innocent man? Perhaps that philosophy makes sense if we’re talking about liquor store robberies, but is that a wise maxim when prosecuting terrorists?

Everyone isn’t going to agree each of the administration’s proposals regarding the Patriot Act. But on the other hand, President Bush has been far more respectful about individual liberties than John Adams, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman.

The greatest danger to civil liberties occurs when the executive branch is allowed to act unimpeded. Because of that, the Patriot Act remains a work in progress. Neither the executive branch nor Congress is going pass perfect legislation the first time around (or perhaps any time), which is why the act is replete with sunset provisions. But considering the threat, the provisions of the act are by and large very prudent measures.

The greatest shortcoming of the administration regarding the Patriot Act was its inability to clearly explain the provisions of the act to the American people immediately after its passage by Congress. Instead of addressing the American public, John Ashcroft chose to impart the administration’s message to the law enforcement community across the nation (a bit like preaching to the choir). But that does not make the act bad. It makes it not fully understood.

Many provisions of the act must be challenged as we gain more experience in hunting down terrorists, and both sides of the debate must acknowledge that there are scores of unknowns that still need to be examined.

But most of all, we must remember that the task of preserving freedom and liberty wasn’t completed in1789. And it is not completed today.

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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