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RIGHTS AND THE NEW REALITY

Telemarketer Terrorists?

September 29, 2003

Scam artists and drug dealers aren't sympathetic characters. But it's more than stretching the point to call them terrorists. Why, then, have federal investigators used a provision of the USA Patriot Act to go after telemarketers accused of swindling elderly consumers, a lawyer accused of stashing stolen funds in a Belize bank account and various drug dealers?

Two years ago, lawmakers wanted to do something to help Americans feel safer. What they did was approve a number of ill-advised changes to federal law, many of which they'd previously rejected for tilting the balance in our criminal justice system way too far toward prosecutors.

When civil libertarians and ordinary citizens sounded alarms about the broad new powers the Patriot Act gave the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to spy on law-abiding Americans, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said, in effect, trust us, we won't trample anyone's constitutional rights.

That trust now appears misplaced. Not only is the Justice Department using the law to go after ordinary criminal defendants, the attorney general has largely stonewalled Congress' questions about how he has used these new powers.

Rather than support reasonable amendments, now before Congress, that would fine-tune the law to prevent civil liberties abuses, Ashcroft and President Bush are asking for even more permission to spy, detain and prosecute. For the last several months, Ashcroft denied he was preparing new legislation, even after a draft copy was leaked in February. Now, with this month's 9/11 anniversary, he and Bush are pushing that hodgepodge of dreadful ideas, popularly dubbed Patriot II.

Should Congress be reckless enough to pass this package, yet to be introduced, FBI agents would gain unprecedented power to rifle through people's desk drawers and force testimony without proving they even had probable cause to suspect criminal activity. Congress wisely rejected this proposal two years ago. The administration wants to require judges -- not just permit them -- to deny bail to many defendants and perhaps to authorize stripping citizenship from any American who provides support to any group that Ashcroft designates a "terrorist organization."

Just as Bush and Ashcroft have refused to detail how their current enforcement tools have made Americans safer, they have failed to make a case for more changes. Instead, the attorney general has indulged his nasty habit of slamming critics as hysterics or near-traitors. Librarians are his latest target, for objecting to a Patriot Act provision allowing federal agents to peruse the records of library users and book buyers.

Yet librarians, among many others, have reason to fear that Patriot I has already upended constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and railroaded trials. Patriot II would do even more damage.

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