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Pare Down the Patriot Act

August 24, 2003

It's yesterday's news that the American Civil Liberties Union detests the USA Patriot Act. But with some Republican members of Congress also deploring civil liberties rollbacks, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is on the road to talk up the law he credits for his department's victories in the war on terror.

Ashcroft insists, "If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before Sept. 11, not six weeks after." But the attorney general has yet to prove that to the satisfaction of many lawmakers who voted for the bill but can't get good answers about how he's used his broad new authority to spy, detain and prosecute.

Ashcroft's three-week, 18-city tour -- what one critic knocks as a "charm offensive" -- is a public-relations retort to growing concern that Congress went too far, too fast in the terrible weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Ashcroft may also be laying the groundwork for a sequel to the Patriot Act that would steal away still more liberties. Congress should resist new laws and instead trim the overly broad authority it too hurriedly gave law enforcement.

More than 140 towns and cities nationwide and three states approved resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act. Librarians and booksellers are especially outraged by provisions that widen the FBI's power to monitor people's reading and video-watching habits. Other groups condemn provisions for secret searches and the government's expanded power to snoop into e-mail and the Internet. All of this new authority may also be used to investigate crimes unrelated to terrorism.

Second thoughts by members of Congress have already resulted in some action. Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a measure that would repeal investigators' power to do "sneak and peek" probes -- unannounced searches of homes and businesses.

Also last month, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced S 1552, which would require FBI agents to convince a judge of the merits of their suspicions before perusing an individual's medical or Internet records. It would also toughen judicial review for some telephone and Internet monitoring. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) have introduced measures to limit the FBI's ability to monitor books and videos.

The nation shares Ashcroft's relief that another major terrorist attack has not occurred. But that relief is no reason for Congress not to fine-tune the Patriot Act to restore a civil liberties balance.

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