Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why not just call it the KGB Act?

Although much of the USA Patriot Act's renewal pending this week in Congress is non-controversial, several provisions are troubling. Among them:

National Security Letters. Federal agents have employed these to obtain private records on thousands of individuals without having to get a court's permission. Everything from credit reports to electronic communications to travel and retail purchase records are fair game. And there's no requirement that this power be limited to use against suspected terrorists. The pending legislation would do little to curb such abuse.

Businesses and institutions holding these records are ordered not to tell anyone that the government has collected someone's personal information. And if a court challenge is mounted, the proposed law declares that the judge would have to defer to any government claim of potential harm to national security, diplomatic relations or criminal investigation. Thus the right to go to court would be rendered virtually useless.

Secret court orders. Known misleadingly as the "library records" provision of the 2001 law, this tool can be used to get a secret court order for tax records, medical records, gun records and more. The recipient of such an order is prohibited from disclosing that it exists, and new language does little to allow for meaningful judicial review. The revisions would impose only the vaguest requirement that the records sought are actually connected to a terrorist organization, a suspected terrorist or even someone in contact with a suspected terrorist.

'Sneak and peak' raids. The government would still, with a warrant, be able to break into your home or business, poke into anything there and not have to inform you for 30 days — and there's an escape clause to justify further delays. Most troubling, the Justice Department recently acknowledged that 88% of the search warrants issued under this provision have been used in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Defining terrorism. One section creates a definition of domestic terrorism so broad that it potentially could be used to include acts of civil disobedience — such as protesters blocking a road or simple trespassing. It also allows for forfeiture of an organization's assets without criminal conviction and without a prior hearing.

Miscellaneous mischief. The bill is loaded with extraneous provisions, many of which have little or nothing to with terrorism. Among them are the creation of new crimes subject to the death penalty, stripping the federal courts of some of their remaining power to review potential miscarriages of justice in state death-penalty cases; and, believe it or not, provisions dealing with tobacco smuggling, combating methamphetamine abuse and donating equipment to local fire departments.

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