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Checks on the Patriot Act

November 21, 2005

THE PATRIOT ACT, a 4-year-old federal law that gave investigators unprecedented power to search for and chase terrorists, is a case study in bad lawmaking. Angry and anxious to respond to the atrocities of 9/11, Congress hastily approved a measure that exposed an indeterminable number of Americans to unreasonable searches and intrusive snooping for the sake of the war on terror. The law provided few of the legal system's usual checks to protect against investigators abusing the new capabilities.

The measure eventually generated outrage on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as from corporations, libraries and retailers forced to report secretly on the activities of employees and customers. Nevertheless, in their haste to wrap up business before the Thanksgiving recess, lawmakers were poised last week to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which is due to expire at the end of the year, with only minor changes.

That was the outcome sought by the White House and its allies in the House. A bipartisan group of six senators stopped the bill, however, by threatening a filibuster. They demanded that House and Senate negotiators produce a reauthorization bill with more of the safeguards that the Senate had approved earlier this year.

The senators' demands are modest, recognizing that law enforcement agencies do need enhanced powers to battle elusive and technologically sophisticated groups of terrorists. But the public also needs to be able to review how those powers have been used. And people need more assurance that the information vacuumed up by their government is actually connected to a suspected terrorist or spy.

In particular, the bill should do away with the automatic, permanent gag orders that allow investigators to hide forever their demands for records from banks, libraries, doctors and other sources. And the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act should be extended for a much shorter period than the seven years suggested by House and Senate conferees.

When Congress approved the Patriot Act, it put its trust in prosecutors and investigators to use their expanded powers responsibly. It now appears that trust was misplaced. Authorities have gone on a snooping frenzy since 2001, issuing more than 30,000 secret demands for records per year, according to the Washington Post. And unless the law is changed, no one will ever know whether those records should have been gathered, or what has been done with them.

Americans want to trust their government. It is their government's foundation, its system of checks and balances, that enables that trust.

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