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Homeland Security

SLUG: 7-37722 Patriot Act and the Bill of Rights

DATE=August 7, 2003



TITLE=Patriot Act and the Bill of Rights

BYLINE=Rebecca Ward



EDITOR=Carol Castiel


INTRO: Less than two months after the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 Congress passed the "Patriot Act," giving federal law enforcement officials sweeping powers to pursue suspected terrorists and their supporters.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U-S House of Representatives are challenging some key provisions of the bill as unconstitutional. For the average American, the debate boils down to a question of security. Are we prepared to give up some of our treasured freedoms for the sake of a safer future? VOA's Rebecca Ward looks at both sides of the debate in today's Dateline.

TEXT: (Open with Nat Sound) It's summertime in the nation's capital, and Washington is full of tourists, many from other countries, but most from here in the United States. On the green expanse of lawn that stretches from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, you can literally find a cross-section of America, and a cross-section of opinions. However, on the issue of security, I found two who were of the same mind.

///ACT ONE - MOS///

"I think it was Ben Franklin who said those who give up liberty to ensure temporary security deserve neither. . . You know, those who would give up a little bit of security, uh a little bit of liberty to secure security deserve neither, right?"

///END ACT///

Well, sort of. What Benjamin Franklin is actually reported as saying in the Historical Review of Pennsylvania is "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The great American statesman used that argument in the years leading up to America's Revolutionary War. Now, he's often quoted by those who oppose some of the tenants of the Patriot Act.

In the aftermath of September 11th, lawmakers and citizens initially embraced the counter-terrorism measures, but vocal opposition to the bill has since grown. In particular, opponents point to the so-called "sneak and peak" portion of the bill, which allows law enforcement to carry out a search, and seize evidence, without immediately notifying the property owner.

Late last month, lawmakers in the U-S House of Representatives voted to block funding for such clandestine searches. Two-and-a-half years earlier, just weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, U-S Attorney-General John Ashcroft welcomed the House's overwhelming approval of the Patriot Act giving Federal agents greater powers to hunt down would-be terrorists.


"A new era in America's fight against terrorism, made tragically necessary by the attacks of September 11th, is about to begin. The legislation embodies two overarching principles, the first principle is airtight surveillance of terrorists."

///END ACT///

The Patriot Act passed easily in the House and Senate, before President Bush signed it into law in October of 2001. Now, says Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union, lawmakers and the public are beginning to question parts of the bill, including the Justice Department's ability to carry out searches without immediate notification.


"Sneak and peak" searches in this case were a very broad delegation of authority to the Justice Department to delay notice in the execution of a search warrant. Notice in the execution of a search warrant is a fundamental constitutional prerogative. It is part of the common law, it's part of the knock and announce rule, it's part of the idea that your home is your castle."

///END ACT///

Georgetown Law Professor Viet Dinh was one of the original architects of the Patriot Act, when he served as assistant Attorney-General in the Justice Department. He says the bill was drafted with civil liberties in mind. But he says, Justice Department officials were also aware of their role in keeping the country safe from future terrorist attacks.


"If we weren't successful, then people would say well you didn't do enough. But if we were successful then people would say you've trampled on civil liberties. And so, protecting civil liberties and safeguarding the Constitution was first and foremost in our mind, knowing that at stake was the freedom of freedom-loving people to do the ordinary things that are protected in our society. And, we were very cognizant of protecting civil liberties and certainly not infringing on any Constitutional rights."

///END ACT///

Nancy Talanian of the Massachusetts-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee says those rights are being abused by the Patriot Act, especially for foreign-born residents of the United States.


"The Bill of Rights apply to not only the U-S citizens but legal residents and visitors and students. The Bill of Rights isn't just some special set of privileges that was meant only for citizens. They're really just basic human rights that should be extended to anyone and they're very similar, in fact, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was passed by the U-N in 1948.

///END ACT///

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee works on the local level to overturn parts of the Patriot Act. Although local jurisdictions cannot change a federal law, Nancy Talanian says they can refuse to cooperate.


"City or town or county government leaders ask their local law enforcement not to engage in unconstitutional activities that are actually sanctioned by the Patriot Act and other laws passed since September 11th. And then, as a community, they ask their senators and congressman in Washington to take action, to take leadership, in restoring those rights."

///END ACT///

To date, about 140 local communities nation-wide, as well as three states, have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act. And, some of those go so far as to instruct local police to refuse requests by state and federal officials that appear to violate the Constitution. Nancy Talanian explains.


"Usually it takes some of the local people working with the City Council or a town meeting to put something together such as a resolution that says what they believe is wrong and how rights will be protected in their town or city, and what they ask of their federal elected leaders."

///END ACT///

Much of the criticism of the Patriot Act is aimed at the expanded powers given to federal agents to carry out surveillance without a grand jury's approval and that includes access to personal records, monitoring a suspect's internet activities, and even obtaining a list of books he might have checked out at the library. However, Professor Dinh points out that the use of these expanded powers is limited to specific circumstances and is subject to prior judicial approval.


"These are very sensitive investigations, that apply only to spies and terrorists. You can not use it for ordinary criminal investigations, you can not use it against law abiding citizens. They only apply to spies and terrorists. In these kind of investigations, the sources, methods of information are critical to our national security."

///END ACT///

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging that thinking, however, with a lawsuit filed on behalf of several U-S based Arab and Islamic groups, who claim the Patriot Act disproportionately targets certain religious and minority groups. Timothy Edgar is Legislative Council for the A-C-L-U here in Washington.


"We think it's important that proper judicial processes search warrants and grand jury subpoenas and other forms of surveillance be maintained. And we thought that some of the things that were passed in the US Patriot Act did go too far, and we're finding increasingly that members of the public are agreeing with us about that as they learn more and more about what the Patriot Act does."

///END ACT///

Responding to the A-C-L-U lawsuit, the Justice Department said the expanded powers granted to law enforcement under the Patriot Act have proven to be an effective tool in fighting terrorism. A spokesman also notes that the provision granting access to personal records cannot be used to investigate garden-variety crimes and he says, it goes to great lengths to preserve the First Amendment rights of libraries, bookstores and other affected entities and their patrons.

In random interviews, I found Americans were fairly split on the issue of security versus liberty. At least half of those I talked to felt the Patriot Act had gone too far in its attempt to secure the safety of Americans.


"It's an invasion of our privacy and it's taken away our liberties. It's anti-American.I'm concerned more about my freedom than security. I think there's plenty going on right now and they're keeping a close eye on us. I'd rather have my freedom back.I don't think that the Patriot Act does make us more secure if you look at the historical record, things like the Alien Sedition Act or the Japanese internment, they just made people think they were more secure but they didn't do anything."

///END ACT///

However, those sentiments were far from unanimous. Several people said they were more concerned about their security than about their civil liberties as described in the Bill of Rights.


"I would say security is more important..I actually have never really felt afraid, even with the terrorist attacks. But I just think that's very much more important because I'm a mom, a wife, who wants to know her streets are secure.I think you have to give up some of that, your liberty, giving up a little of it for the protection of everybody. We have to give up some of our rights, not all of our rights are intrusion, of course. But some of 'em , because otherwise it's just become too scary in the world not to have more security."

///END ACT///

Despite the recent challenges to the Patriot Act, it's unclear if or when any aspect of the bill will be changed. The A-C-L-U's lawsuit -- filed in a Michigan federal court is the first constitutional challenge to the Patriot Act and has yet to be heard. Meanwhile, the House measure on the so-called "sneak and peek" aspect of the Patriot Act could be quashed by the Senate later this year. For Dateline, I'm Rebecca Ward.

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