An unusual coalition of conservative groups and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union opened a public campaign today to scale back the enhanced surveillance powers granted to law enforcement after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The alliance, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, urged Congress to modify what it called ``extreme provisions'' of the USA Patriot Act that expanded police power to conduct secret searches and broadened the definition of terrorism. Because 16 provisions related to surveillance powers will ``sunset'' on Dec. 31 unless Congress extends them, lawmakers are under pressure to take action on the law this year.
The group, headed by former Republican Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, also urged President George W. Bush in a letter to reconsider his support for full renewal of the Patriot Act.
``We agree that much of the Patriot Act is necessary to provide law enforcement with the resources they need to defeat terrorism, but we remain very concerned that some of its provisions go beyond that mission and infringe on the rights of law-abiding Americans,'' the group said in its letter to Bush, dated today.
Members of the coalition include the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Eagle Forum and the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons.
Renew the Act
``Given the number of folks in this room wearing elephant lapel pins, I don't think the administration can easily discount our message,'' Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said at a press conference today.
Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have called on Congress to renew the Patriot Act in full. Gonzales said on Feb. 28 that, while he would welcome a debate in Congress on the topic, ``What I will not support are changes in law that would make America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.''
Drafted and enacted in just 45 days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act broadened the power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and police agencies to intercept communications and allowed intelligence officials to share information from foreign surveillance investigations with law enforcement.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, estimated that 95 percent of the law is ``non-controversial.'' Among the provisions that have drawn criticism is one that codified so-called ``delayed-notice'' searches, in which the target isn't immediately notified.
The law also authorizes the FBI to demand ``any tangible things,'' including books and records, after telling a judge the material is needed for a terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. Before the Patriot Act, the FBI could demand only travel or storage-facility records in an espionage or terror investigation and had to meet a higher standard of proof before the judge.
Barr's group said Congress should make changes to the ``delayed-notice'' search provision, which expires at the end of this year, and to the FBI's power to obtain ``any tangible things,'' which doesn't expire.
It also urged changes to a non-expiring provision that broadly defines domestic terrorism as activity that appears to be intended ``to intimidate or coerce'' the public or the U.S. government.
``Terrorism laws must target terrorists, not critics of government policy,'' Murphy said.
Second Term Priority
Renewing the Patriot Act is one of Bush's second-term domestic priorities. Gonzales, in remarks to the National Association of Counties on March 7, said the Patriot Act is a compilation of ``common-sense measures'' that have been mischaracterized by ``a small but vocal minority'' of critics.
``We can point to solid results, saved lives, and a nation that is safer,'' Gonzales said. ``For more than three years, there has not been one verified civil rights abuse under the Patriot Act.''
Gonzales has been attorney general for less than two months. ``I am hopeful that he will take a more reasonable approach to the Patriot Act than did his predecessor,'' said Paul Weyrich, chief executive of the Free Congress Foundation. ``John Ashcroft's position was that, if you opposed any section of the Patriot Act, you were aiding and abetting terrorists.''
In a report released to Congress last July, Ashcroft said the Patriot Act had contributed to the filing of criminal charges against 310 people and 179 convictions or guilty pleas as of May 5.
The provisions credited with helping law enforcement in many of those cases aren't among those due to expire. Also, while some of those cases targeted people accused of aiding terrorist groups, others involved more traditional criminal cases such as computer hacking and child pornography.
Opposing the Law
The use of the Patriot Act in what he calls ``garden-variety criminal investigations'' is among the objections voiced by Barr, who joined most congressional Republicans in voting for the law in 2001. After losing his bid for a fifth term in 2002, he became a consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union in its attempt to modify the law.
In a statement on the coalition's Web site, Barr said the debate over the law's expiring provisions should be just the beginning of a broader discussion of ``the growth of domestic surveillance and the simultaneous erosion of judicial review'' and of ``how the government is increasingly treating every American as a potential suspect.''