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Proposal is assault on 4th Amendment

Reading Eagle | May 26, 2005

The Issue: A change in the USA Patriot Act is being proposed that would allow the FBI agents investigating terrorism to seize business documents without getting the approval of a judge.

Our Opinion: This is another assault on our civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

It is mind-boggling that the U.S. government is going to such great links to establish democracies in the Middle East while simultaneously attempting to take away indi-vidual rights here at home.

In its latest assault on the U.S. Constitution, the Bush administration and its Republican allies in the Senate are pushing a proposal that would eliminate even the semblance of judicial control over the FBI in terrorism investigations, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits government agents from making unreasonable searches and seizures. It also stipulates that such searches and seizures can be made only after a statement of probable cause, which includes a description of the place to be searched and the person and things to be seized.

Passage of the USA Patriot Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks diluted the Fourth Amendment by setting up a secret intelligence court to approve subpoe-nas for the seizure of documents, such as medical records and library reading lists.

The suspicion of many is that the court is little more than a rubber stamp. Of course, there is no way to be certain of that since it’s operated in secret.

But under the proposal making its way through the Senate, any pretense of adhering to the Fourth Amend-ment would be dropped and the FBI would be allowed to act on its own in the seizure of documents.

All the agents would be required to do is declare that the documents are needed in an investigation that could lead to suspects involved in possible terrorist activity.

Supporters of the proposal justify this desecration of the Fourth Amendment by insisting that the FBI needs tools that provide quicker and less cumbersome re-sponses to leads in investigations of terrorism and espionage.

There’s no doubt that the FBI would be able to respond quicker if it’s excused from complying with the civil liber-ties provided in the Constitution. But is that justification to scrap part of the Bill of Rights?

In an effort to ameliorate civil libertarians, supporters of the proposal claim it contains safe guards to discourage abuse.

For instance, the FBI only could issue the demands for records with the approval of the agency’s director or sen-ior officials down through the rank of a special agent in charge.

To call that a safeguard is absurd.

What has civil libertarians concerned, and rightly so, is that this proposal, which is part of an overall plan to broaden the Patriot Act, eventually could be used against legitimate protest groups.

Their concern is very real. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union said the FBI is using terrorism as an excuse to spy on political activists opposed to various government policies.

That contention is based on documents that the FBI turned over to the ACLU under a Freedom of Information request. The ACLU is suing the FBI for additional docu-ments that were withheld, which may give a better picture of the extent of the spying.

Interestingly, on the same day the ACLU was making its claim, officials with various government law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were telling a Senate panel that they were greatly concerned about what they called domestic terrorism.

Terrorism, whether from foreign sources or domestic, is a serious problem and must be dealt with aggressively. But in doing so the freedoms that so many Americans have given their lives to protect should not be sacrificed.

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