Efforts to protect us mustn’t eclipse freedom

During the recent House debate to extend the USA Patriot Act, Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., summed up the dilemma:

“How much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe?”

The House voted to renew the act indefinitely, but put a 10-year limit on two of the most debated provisions – allowing federal agents to use roving wiretaps and to search library and medical records.

During the deliberations, nine Republicans broke ranks and voted with a united Democratic bloc in a failed attempt to make all 16 of the Patriot Act’s most sensitive provisions subject to an additional four-year sunset period.

The Republicans said their vote was an attempt to adhere to the limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Those concerns are echoed in the Senate’s bill, which also extends the act, but calls for a four-year review of the wiretap and library provisions. The Senate will vote on the bill in the fall, before the two measures are reconciled in a conference committee.

How much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe?

The roving wiretap provision allows investigators to obtain warrants to intercept a suspect’s phone conversations or Internet traffic without limiting it to a specific phone or identifying the suspect.

The records provision authorizes federal officials to obtain “tangible items,” such as business, library and medical records.

Patriot Act advocates argue that such powers already exist in criminal investigations so they should be continued for terrorism investigations. The House-approved bill also requires that a judge approve the records search. An amendment requires the FBI director to personally approve any request for library or bookstore records.

Critics of the act ask if such powers already exist in criminal investigations, why do we need a separate law to deal with terrorism?

The Justice Department has reported that the powers of the act have been used to convict an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who tried to purchase hand grenades to bomb abortion clinics, to trace a threat to burn down an Islamic Center in El Paso, Texas, to dismantle a terror cell in Portland, and to rescue a baby after its mother was murdered in Missouri.

The powers of the act were also used to conduct a secret search of the home Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim convert who was wrongly suspected of involvement in the March 2004 Madrid bombings, which killed more than 200 people. After discovering that Mayfield’s fingerprints didn’t match those of a set found at the attack site, the FBI released the lawyer, admitting officials made a mistake and rushed to judgement.

How can we feel safe and secure in our civil liberties when the government can presume us guilty until proven innocent?

Arguing for revisions of the Patriot Act in April, former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said: “Too many people think the Patriot Act doesn’t affect them, and that if it does, it doesn’t matter. It severs the very foundation of the Fourth Amendment to say that government can invade a person’s privacy and gather information against them without having a sound basis for suspecting that they’ve done something wrong.”

The protection of our rights must be equal to, or greater than, attempts to keep us safe. Congress should keep that in mind as it tries to reconcile the Patriot Act with the truths that we hold to be self-evident.

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