Monday, December 26, 2005

The Patriot Act's arsenal of intrusion

December 26, 2005

There've been few sugarplums for President Bush this December. Not only is he being compared to a joyless Grinch called Nixon over revelations of secret surveillance, but Congress left town after stuffing his Christmas stocking full of rocks.

The president wanted a vote making the soon-to-expire Patriot Act permanent. After impassioned negotiating, a filibuster and a last-minute fight between the House and Senate, lawmakers instead opted to extend the law for one month -- a move that buys time to explore whether the Patriot Act is actually worthy of America's law books.

Propelled through Congress by Republican leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the law has never undergone the thoughtful scrutiny any such measure merits. More and more lawmakers -- even some of the president's most dependable Republican backers -- are wondering whether the Patriot Act is all it's cracked up to be.

The president couldn't be surer that it works. "In a war on terror," he said last week, "we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment." So the president asserts, but what moves him to say so? He's not cited a single instance in which the Patriot Act has proved pivotal in averting terrorism. Yet somehow, even in the absence of proof, the assumption prevails that the Patriot Act is all that stands between American tranquility and terror.

It's a dangerous assumption to make -- especially when American liberty is at stake. That's the point the president seems to miss -- and that the skeptical seek to emphasize. Many of the Patriot Act's provisions, they grant, raise no concerns at all. Their misgivings focus on a few provisions that have greatly broadened the government's power to invade personal privacy.

This law expands the ability of law enforcement to conduct secret searches and surveillance. It permits the FBI to paw through citizens' medical, financial and mental-health records without notification or permission. It enables investigation of citizens even if they're not suspected of criminal conduct. Perhaps worst of all, it permits non-citizens to be jailed for the most threadbare of reasons -- and authorizes indefinite detention without public judicial review.

It's hard to see the patriotism in that arsenal of repressive tactics. Indeed, it's hard to imagine liberty-loving Americans condoning such strategies. Those who do surely must believe they'll never be the subject of the government's gaze. But what leads them to think so? History teems with stories of innocent people enduring persecution by unrestrained government. This country's founders wrote the U.S. Constitution to shield its people from such suffering.

Perhaps some of the Patriot Act's controversial provisions are truly necessary to snare terrorists before they strike. But the burden for proving that case lies with the change-seekers.

When lawmakers gather in the New Year, they'll have only a month to explore the legitimacy of the law's most worrisome provisions. It's up to the White House to prove that the sabotage of freedom is in fact necessary to safeguard it -- that the Patriot Act is indeed patriotic.

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