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The Nation

Powers of Patriot Act in Eye of the Beholder

The law, symbolic of the war on terrorism, is under fire. But some of its supposed faults and strengths are actually misconceptions.

September 02, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The USA Patriot Act, overwhelmingly approved by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, is going through a national checkup triggered by lawsuits, grass-roots pressure and other factors.

Civil liberties groups are decrying its operation. Members of Congress are having second thoughts. The Bush administration and the Justice Department are defending their record in enforcing it.

But despite the growing and widespread debate, there remains confusion about what the law exactly does and does not do. With the passage of time since the Sept. 11 attacks, interest groups and others are scrutinizing the law and questioning whether certain provisions are too broad or are really necessary.

In the process, the Patriot Act has become a kind of a symbol of the war on terrorism, with vices and virtues ascribed to it that, in some cases, are wrong.

Few groups have raised their voices louder in the debate than the nation's librarians.

Across the country, library groups and booksellers have been attacking a section of the terrorism-fighting law that gives federal agents new powers to obtain patrons' reading records. Previously, they could get library records only through a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation. Under the Patriot Act, those records, and many others, may also be obtained by the government in intelligence investigations through a secret tribunal known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where the standard of proof is lower than in criminal cases.

The American Library Assn. has mounted a lobbying blitz, saying the reading habits of ordinary Americans are being threatened. Members of Congress have introduced legislation to amend the law and kill the offending provision.

"The threat of terrorism must not be used as an excuse by the government to intrude upon our basic constitutional rights," Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said in introducing one such bill earlier this year. The legislation, he added, will "protect libraries, bookstores and their patrons from unjustified government surveillance."

But evidence seems to indicate that the problem is less dire. Librarians and their supporters point to a study that shows that law enforcement officials have visited libraries hundreds of times since the attacks. What they don't say is that the same study shows that the number of such visits was actually higher in the year before the attacks.

In the past, the government has obtained library records in cases such as the Zodiac gunman investigation in New York in the early 1990s and the Gianni Versace murder case in Florida. Without providing details, officials say they recently obtained a subpoena targeting a bookseller to obtain records showing that a suspect in a domestic terrorism case had purchased a book giving instructions on how to build a detonator that had been used in several bombings.

The Justice Department cites these and other examples as the sorts of misperceptions that are undermining support for the 2-year-old law, and the war on terrorism, although the department appears to create some misperceptions of its own.

Kicking off a speaking tour last month to shore up support for the Patriot Act, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft highlighted a case out of the Pacific Northwest, where a local deputy sheriff tipped off a special terrorism task force and helped crack a suspected terrorist cell in the region. What isn't stressed is that local officials have been helping their federal counterparts for years, and the terrorism task force was created well before the Patriot Act became law.

Some of the most controversial steps the government has taken after the Sept. 11 attacks have nothing to do with the law, including its decision to round up and deport hundreds of illegal immigrants.

The case of alleged "dirty bomb" plotter Jose Padilla -- an American citizen whom federal agents arrested in Chicago and are holding in a military prison without a lawyer or formal charges -- strikes many legal scholars as the most dubious of the government's post-Sept. 11 moves.

"That is phenomenally outrageous and unprecedented -- and not in the Patriot Act at all," says James X. Dempsey, the executive director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil liberties group.

Other provisions that are being attacked have yet to be fully deployed.

In a report last week aimed at dispelling misperceptions allegedly created by the Justice Department about the Patriot Act, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the law's definition of "domestic terrorism" is so broad that it covers the activities of political organizations.

The ACLU says it isn't aware of any case in which the law has been applied that way. The provision it is concerned about applies only to people who violate state or federal criminal law and who engage in conduct that "endangers human life," among other requirements.

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