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Just trust Big Brother....and all will be well

The Arizona Republic/Chris Thomas | April 12 2005

Only by writing a remarkably content free column about renewal of the Patriot Act was my friend Doug MasEachern able to avoid the fatal logical flaw of those who insist that the act must be renewed in its current form, no exceptions.

On the one hand, those who support leaving the act unchanged say that "everything" in the act must remain to prevent more terrorist attacks. On the other, they reassure us that we shouldn't worry about some of the act's most intrusive provisions, since they never get used anyway.

Well, which is it? Is it necessary to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate Americans without judicial oversight or even any particular suspicion of wrongdoing, much less terrorist activity? Does the government really need the right to secretly demand entire library and medical databases? Or should we not worry our pretty little heads about these overbroad provisions, since they never get used anyway? Are we a nation of laws, or men?

Where should we draw the line on the tradeoffs between freedom and security? Alas, Doug's column merely contains a partial list of people on both sides of the debate, without explaining what the debate is about. Apparently he's not quite sure what's in there that concerns many across the political spectrum, but prepared to defer to those who reassure him that it's all necessary.

Although Doug accuses those who support recalibrating the act of sowing hysteria, they actually propose modest and sensible changes. But judge the rhetoric for yourself. The American Civil Liberties Union, which supports a competing bill introduced April 5 by Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, says "most of the voluminous Patriot Act is unobjectionable from a civil liberties point of view," but "a few provisions unnecessarily trample civil liberties, and must be revised to bring them in line with the Constitution."

Senator Craig, meanwhile, says the Patriot Act needs a few "narrowly tailored adjustments" to prevent the potential for abuse. He and Durbin introduced a bill, called the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act, to do simply that.

Among other things, the bipartisan bill would narrow the overbroad definition of "domestic terrorism" to clarify that domestic terrorism does not include civil disobedience by political organizations. Right now, the Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as essentially including all state and federal crimes committed for political purposes - like, say, trespassing by pro-life picketers and lunch counter sit-ins by civil rights workers.

The SAFE Act would also restore the requirement that the government have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before engaging in surveillance and require the government to report to Congress on its use of the act's provisions. It would also allow third-party recipients of subpoenas - public libraries and book stores, say - the right to challenge them in court. Right now the act has a "gag order" provision that precludes recipients from disclosing the orders to anyone, arguably including both their attorneys and the courts.

When the ACLU, the American Conservative Union, and the League of Women Voters all agree that something needs to be fixed, it's not a sign of creeping paranoia. It's a sign it really needs to be fixed.