Patriots vs. the Patriot Act

Patriots vs. the Patriot Act

When Attorney General John Ashcroft felt obliged to go out campaigning in August in defense of the USA Patriot Act, his problem wasn’t just what people were saying about the act.

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When Attorney General John Ashcroft felt obliged to go out campaigning in August in defense of the USA Patriot Act, his problem wasn’t just what people were saying about the act. His real problem was who was saying it. Ashcroft and the Bush Administration could dismiss complaints coming from the people George W. Bush’s father liked to call “card-carrying members of the ACLU.” But the wave of objection to the Patriot Act–and its offspring, Patriot Act II–is also coming from people like John Coghill (Republican, North Pole).

Coghill, a construction worker and pastor’s assistant, is majority leader of the Alaska House of Representatives (his North Pole is about fourteen miles northeast of Fairbanks) and calls himself a “constitutionalist and conservative Republican.” He’s also co-sponsor of a measure that overwhelmingly passed the Alaska legislature–one no vote in two GOP-controlled chambers–that urges Congress to fix violations of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and resist any others, and that calls on Alaska law-enforcement agencies not to cooperate with the Feds “in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under Alaska State law.” Explains Coghill about the act, “The definition of terrorism probably is the biggest concern. It’s very broad in scope. You can drive almost any criminal activity, or suspected criminal activity, into that definition.” Or as his congressman, Don Young–a hard-right, anti-environmental House power whose office greets visitors with a giant Kodiak bearskin–says about the Patriot Act: “Worst act we ever passed.”

Anti-Patriot Act resolutions have been passed by two other states: Hawaii and Vermont–where the resolution went unanimously through the Senate and 101-23 through a Republican-controlled House. At the end of summer, the Oregon Senate joined them, 23-2, with conservative GOP Senator Gary George declaring, “Senators from all political persuasions joined with Oregon citizens to affirm again our defense of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to request that the federal government rescind those portions of the Patriot Act that assault our cherished liberties.” Resolutions have been adopted by 150 counties and cities, including Philadelphia.

In April, even before this surge, an ACLU forum in Washington protesting the act was joined by conservative power broker Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union; Lori Waters, executive director of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum; and ex-GOP Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, Clinton-impeachment cheerleader. They attacked the new, secretive powers the act gives the Justice Department, and Norquist expressed a special concern: “Someday Hillary Clinton’s going to be Attorney General, and I hope conservatives keep that in mind.”

That prospect, or something even more chilling, may be part of what’s driving the sixteen Republican House sponsors (out of 132) of the Freedom to Read Protection Act. The bill would revoke the government’s new power to secretly demand people’s library-borrowing and bookstore-purchase records. (The House attempted to attach an amendment cutting funds for such efforts to the State Department appropriations bill.) “If you want to write about how a terrorist can build a bomb, you shouldn’t be considered a terrorist,” says Republican Representative C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho, “and that’s what the bill does.” The conservative Otter–one of only three Republicans to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001–calls the bill “the first of many efforts to assuage some of the problems of the Patriot Act.” He underlined that point in July, when he won an overwhelming House victory banning any spending for the act’s Section 213, allowing “sneak and peak” searches without notification of the subject. Otter now sees a changed attitude in the House: “Counties, cities, libraries and folks are writing letters to members of Congress asking what’s going on,” he says. “A lot of folks who voted for it have started to take another look.”

Among those looking hard is Republican F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. This past spring, when Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch suggested making all the Patriot Act’s new powers–which sunset in five years–permanent, Sensenbrenner offered an alternative proposal: “Over my dead body.”

Part of what’s making the Patriot Act look different to so many Congress members and state legislators is a stream of protest driven by the American Library Association, which has firmly opposed the Patriot Act sections touching libraries. The association has also advised its members to speed up their electronic elimination of borrowing records, and libraries all over the country have followed this approach to making themselves more subpoena-proof. Before the Patriot Act, says Emily Sheketoff, the Washington associate executive director of the ALA, “library records were sacrosanct. The courts had recognized that there was a direct relationship between freedom of speech, privacy rights and your reading records.”

Lots of Americans who don’t usually consider themselves leftist activists sit on local library boards and commissions, and Washington is hearing from them. In trying to resist a Justice Department that alternates between abusing the new powers it has and demanding more, liberals could have worse allies than librarians and libertarians.

Before the Senate adjourned for the August recess, Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, introduced legislation to cut the Patriot Act back sharply. The war on terror and the rights of Americans must be balanced, said Murkowski: “To date it appears portions of the Patriot Act may have moved the scales out of balance.” The bill carries the endorsement of such conservative mainstays as Americans for Tax Reform, the Free Congress Foundation and the Rutherford Institute.

Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, but these days he feels a lot less lonely. “It’s just unbelievable how many people are concerned about this,” says Feingold. “They get the feeling that these are powers that could be used to monitor them.” It turns out a lot of conservatives don’t like that either. And John Ashcroft has had to notice.

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