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The Nation

Patriot Act Push Angers Some on Right

A Senate panel vote riles conservatives concerned about the reach of federal power.

June 12, 2005|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A closed-door vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week to expand law enforcement powers under the USA Patriot Act is prompting sharp criticism from some conservative leaders who are otherwise among the most vocal allies of President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress.

The conservative leaders -- who have formed a coalition with critics on the left, including the American Civil Liberties Union -- vowed to press their concerns in coming days with public statements, rallies and radio advertisements in key congressional districts.

The conservatives, including former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and political activists who have been long-standing critics of the anti-terrorism law, lashed out with particular force last week against the White House, members of Congress and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. They said they had expected a more open review of the Patriot Act in which lawmakers considered some limits in order to safeguard civil liberties.

The conservatives complained that the Senate panel had moved in secret to expand the act. They are particularly upset about proposed "administrative subpoenas" that would let the FBI obtain a person's medical, financial and other records in terrorism cases without seeking a judge's approval.

Their criticism gathered force as Bush devoted two public events last week to pressing Congress to renew parts of the act due to expire at the end of this year.

The White House and the congressional leadership generally enjoy enthusiastic support from conservative activist organizations, though the Republican base has experienced profound disagreements over the decision to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and over the general expansion of government under President Bush.

But now, said conservative activist Grover Norquist, every major conservative grass-roots organization has expressed concern about expanding the Patriot Act. He emphasized that his concern was directed not at the White House but at Congress. Other conservative leaders, however, are aiming their criticism at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"It is a slap in the face to the Constitution," said Barr, who leads a bipartisan coalition calling for limits on the act.

Passed six weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was intended to give law enforcement more power to fight terrorism. But Barr and other critics say the law goes too far and gives federal investigators unbridled power that endangers civil rights. The proposed "administrative subpoenas" approved by the intelligence panel last week would "wipe away the 4th Amendment" protection against unreasonable searches, Barr said.

Barr also accused the president of giving "the back of his hand" to concerns about constitutional protections "that so many have fought and died for."

The head of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, said he was upset that the administration appeared to be encouraging the Patriot Act provisions' renewal through the more secretive Senate Intelligence Committee, despite pledges of openness and of a willingness to consider compromise. The Senate Judiciary Committee also has jurisdiction over renewing the act, but it has not begun deliberations, which are generally open to the public.

Keene is particularly upset with Atty. Gen. Gonzales, who has agreed in recent meetings with conservative activists, participants said, to the principle of open discussion and careful review of the Patriot Act before 16 of its most important provisions are renewed. The Intelligence Committee's decision to proceed on the Patriot Act was made without objection from the White House or from Gonzales.

"I find it disquieting that he talks like he is a reasonable guy and then, when it comes down to it, acts like he is not," Keene said. "We need to know: Who is the real Gonzales?"

Although Barr, Keene and a handful of other well-known conservatives are working with groups on the political left to limit the Patriot Act, Keene rejected arguments from the left that "there is a Republican plot to deprive of us of our rights. The fact is, this is what governments do," regardless of who is in power, particularly in time of war.

Supporters of the Patriot Act (an acronym for Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) say the law fixes some of the intelligence and law enforcement problems that allowed the Sept. 11 terrorists to enter the country and proceed without detection.

Among other things, the massive, quickly approved measure permits "roving wiretaps" that allow officials to tap multiple phones used by a targeted person. It also encourages information sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies and permits investigators to subpoena library records.

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