Special Report

Oversee the PATRIOT Act

Congress needs to wake up to its responsibilities.

By and 6.3.04

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WASHINGTON -- In the wake of 9/11 the Department of Justice began asking for more and more "tools" to aid law enforcement agencies in their effort to identify potential terrorist threats and, as Administration spokesmen like to put it, "protect the American homeland."

No conservative can disagree with the goal and virtually all of us understand the need to give those charged with the job of rooting out terrorists and preventing them from achieving their goals within our borders the tools they need to do their job, but many are beginning to question whether they have thought through the impact on privacy and constitutional rights of many of the "tools" they have acquired since 9/11 and are requesting today.

Increasingly, conservatives we talk to outside Washington express real concern about providing Federal law enforcement with more power in the name of national security. They fear that the "tools" the government seeks to protect us from our enemies could eventually be used to circumscribe our own liberties. Given the maneuvering over H.R. 3179, they have good reason for concern.

H.R. 3179 is the latest attempt to expand the scope of the PATRIOT Act even before it is clear that all the current PATRIOT Act powers are necessary and being used appropriately. Despite the unanswered concern, key Congressional leaders resorted to stealth tactics late last year to attach a measure to the 2004 Intelligence Authorization bill that drastically increased the power of the FBI by allowing the agency to demand records from car dealers, pawnbrokers, travel agents, and other businesses without the approval of a judge or grand jury. Neither the House nor the Senate debated this measure; the real action happened behind closed doors.

The same thing appears to be happening to H.R. 3179 -- the Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Tools Improvement Act of 2003. House leaders planned to rush the bill to the House floor for approval without any real debate until a coalition of groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Free Congress Foundation and the American Conservative Union raised a ruckus. At that point, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, whose name appears on the bill with that of Porter Goss, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, decided that perhaps it deserved a hearing in subcommittee before being voted on.

EVEN THE MOST CURSORY of examinations reveals that H.R. 3179 would expand PATRIOT powers without including any built-in measures to provide accountability and oversight. One of its most troubling provisions involves new powers for searches ordered by National Security Letters. These can be used to demand access to individual or business records even where there is no showing of individual suspicion. There is no way for either the target of the investigation nor those on whom the letters are served can challenge them as overbroad. The statute, in fact, makes it a crime for a recipient from raising alarms in the press, or even with the Inspector General of the Department of Justice or the relevant congressional committees that should be exercising oversight of this provision.

Another provision of H.R. 3179 restricts the power of a judge to decide whether the admission of classified information in criminal cases is warranted. The government request that such evidence be allowed would be made without opposing counsel present and doesn't even have to be in writing. In his testimony at the House hearing, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, who served on the Judiciary Committee while in Congress and is both a former U.S. Attorney and CIA official, said this provision "represents an incremental shift of power away from the court and towards the prosecutor. Congress should hear much more from both prosecutors and defense lawyers with experience in this area before making such a change, in order to determine whether the effect may be much larger than intended."

These are only two of the changes sought by H.R. 3179. Neither of them by themselves is going to make many Americans lose much sleep, but when combined with the other "tools" being acquired by law enforcement they should. The hearings on this legislation were never completed. They were suspended early to allow its members to participate in roll call votes on the House floor and have yet to be reconvened. If history repeats itself, they may never be resumed, as many observers believe that H.R. 3179 will be slipped into the 2005 Intelligence Authorization bill where it can be expected to receive little scrutiny or debate.

Conservatives should be concerned about all this. The fact that key Congressional leaders are maneuvering to enhance the power of the Executive Branch without providing for adequate debate over appropriate measures for oversight and accountability is disturbing enough. It was James Madison in Federalist 58 who stated that we did not fight for an "elective despotism" but one in which the powers of government were divided between the different branches of government so that "no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectively checked and restrained by the others." However, by Congress's granting great power -- without checks and balances -- to the Executive Branch, it is abdicating its own responsibility and encouraging future abuses by Federal law enforcement agencies.

CONSERVATIVES WELL KNOW that a government bureaucracy's appetite for power is never sated. Left unchecked, it will push the limits, mindless of the cost to our freedom. Already, there is an effort underway in Congress to remove the existing sunset provisions to the PATRIOT Act even though the Government Accounting Office in a 2003 report raised questions about whether the Act's powers were being misused to fight not terrorism, but run of the mill crime.

While most Americans are unlikely to find themselves part of an investigation involving terrorism, they should know that these new "tools" are already being creatively used by U.S. attorneys from one end of the country to investigate very ordinary criminal acts and citizens who don't realize that the privacy and constitutional safeguards they once took for granted are already being eroded.

There are those who perhaps overstate the threat, but that doesn't mean it isn't real. That's why Congress should draw the line between the "tools" law enforcement really needs and those the law enforcement bureaucracy would simply like to have. At the very least, Congress should resist the temptation to approve law enforcement's newest requests without at least ascertaining that the "tools" it already has are needed for the job and are being used as Congress believed they would when they were approved.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.