The debate in Congress over the USA Patriot Act, portions of which are scheduled to “sunset” at the end of this year, will not take place for months.
But it’s heartening to see that a coalition of liberals and conservatives that has raised concerns about portions of the law is still together and beginning to marshal support not only for sunsetting the portions of the law scheduled to expire, but to reconsider other parts as well.
Bob Barr, the former Republican (and very conservative) congressman from Georgia, announced last week the formation of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances and a campaign to support reform of the Patriot Act. Joining him are the American Civil Liberties Union, David Keens of the American Conservative Union, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the Second Amendment Foundation and other firearms-rights groups.
The coalition objects to Section 213, which allows “sneak and peek” search warrants, under which federal agents can search a home or business without a deadline for giving notice that a search has taken place.
Section 215 allows the collection of personal data from libraries, businesses and medical providers without evidence that the person investigated is connected to terrorism — and with those required to provide data not allowed to tell the citizen he or she is under investigation. Section 802 defines “terrorism” so broadly that people merely protesting government actions could be defined as terrorists.
The administration claims it has used the law conservatively and hasn’t violated anyone’s rights. But grants of power are not typically abused badly in the first years; having them on the books, however, invites abuse. And much of what the government has done under the Patriot Act remains classified, so it is impossible for outsiders to assess these claims independently.
The desire to keep this law — cobbled together from a pastiche of proposals the Clinton administration tried to pass during the 1990s that most Republicans had resisted — suggests the administration is less serious about fighting and winning a “war on terror” than on using fear of terrorism to justify expanding government power.
Congress should let the provisions designed to sunset expire and reform the problem areas this unusual coalition has identified.