WASHINGTON – In a rare occurrence, conservative watchdogs are siding with liberal groups who say that several provisions of the anti-terror USA Patriot Act (search) are cause for concern by Americans seeking to protect their basic rights.
"We must balance at all times the fact that national security is important, but freedom is essential," said Phil Kent, president of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (search), which has taken issue with expanded federal surveillance powers granted under the law.
Kent and others are applauding local efforts to try to ward off provisions of the Patriot Act. As of this week, the state of Hawaii as well as 104 cities and counties across the country have passed resolutions protesting federal law enforcement measures in the USA Patriot Act.
Many of these state and local governments represent the most liberal communities in the United States, but for conservatives opposing expanded surveillance powers, secret searches and collection of personal data — including library, consumer and financial records — they say they don't care who makes the statement as long as it is loud and clear.
"When Patriot was enacted, it was mostly groups on the left that had been getting involved in going to their town councils, local governments and even sheriffs’ offices to say we’re going to be watching you. That needs to be expanded; there needs to be more public awareness," said Lisa Dean, a privacy analyst with Free Congress (search), a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
"I think this cuts across all ideological and partisan lines," Kent said.
The USA Patriot Act is a package of broadened surveillance and law enforcement powers enacted by Congress and passed into law weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Civil liberties activists say a number of measures contained in the act encroach upon individual rights. Specifically, they point to powers by the FBI to monitor e-mail and Internet chat rooms, political and religious gatherings, library records, financial transactions and consumer buying habits.
Moreover, concerns are growing about the authority of the FBI to obtain secret search and seizure warrants against U.S. citizens suspected of having terrorist ties under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (search).
The FISA court was set up in 1979 in order to grant the FBI search and seizure warrants in foreign intelligence gathering cases. But since the threshold to obtain such warrants was lower than probable cause standards in regular courts, FISA did not apply to domestic criminal cases.
However, the Patriot Act expanded the use of FISA to domestic surveillance as long as national security plays a "significant" role in the case.
Just last week, the Senate built on that by approving a bill to allow the FISA court to pursue foreign individuals suspected of, but with no clear ties to, terrorists groups.
The rules are making some citizens groups wary. Since January 2002, local governments in 24 states have passed resolutions ranging from symbolic protests to declarations that they will not cooperate with federal authorities if they come into their communities to conduct searches or surveillance on their residents.
"We’re directing our city departments and city police to not cooperate with anything that will infringe on the rights of our citizens," said Ignacio de la Fuente, president of the city council in Oakland, Calif. He said people there are scared that new federal powers are going to be used to harass the local immigrant population.
Nancy Talanian, an activist with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (search), which was successful in getting similar resolutions passed in several Massachusetts communities, said citizens are worried about the secrecy surrounding detainments, trials and information gathering.
"Congress has failed to provide oversight," Talanian said. "We decided to take action as a community. We can say no, we are not going to use local law enforcement to help the FBI and [Immigration and Naturalization Services]."
But not all local officials agree that passing protest resolutions — symbolic or otherwise — is very helpful.
"The last thing I want to do is put my employees in the position of breaking the law," said Cynthia Murray, a commissioner of the Marin County Board of Supervisors in California. She was the one dissenting voice in a May 6 vote protesting the Patriot Act and requesting reports on any related federal law enforcement activity in the county.
Murray said such reports are a waste of time and taxpayer money. "I am very concerned that we are still very vulnerable to terrorist attacks and I see the Patriot Act as a critical tool for law enforcement," she said. "We’re in a terrible budget crisis right now and I think it’s a waste of time — the checks and balances are already built into the Patriot Act."
Responding to a anti-Patriot Act resolution passed by the Tucson, Ariz., city council on May 5, Republican U.S. Sen. John Kyl said none of the invasiveness activists have warned about has come to pass.
"Despite what critics charge, law-abiding Americans have not seen their rights infringed," he told Foxnews.com.
But some lawmakers have been questioning the secrecy behind the surveillance methods and have been alarmed at a recent movement to extend the powers in the act permanently.
"I was glad my hometown took the position they did because more and more people are coming to realize that to make the Patriot Act permanent would be to change the very nature of how we live in this country," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who was elected after the act was passed in Congress.
David Kopel, a civil liberties expert with the conservative Independence Institute, said watchdogs from both the left and right are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the federal government’s role in domestic law enforcement, and cities and towns can send a message by withholding local support.
"Your city couldn’t pass a law saying that the Patriot Act does not apply within its city boundaries," he said, "but the city can choose not to assist in the enforcement of that law."