NEW YORK – Although war and the economy dominate most discussions at the Republican National Convention (search), an intraparty squabble is brewing over civil liberties, with some conservatives fearing government is becoming too invasive, and others saying wartime requires sacrifice of some freedoms.
Former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr (search) stands on the side of the GOP that believes more attention needs to be paid to increasing government power and diminishing individual rights.
Barr’s position is in stark contrast to that of President Bush, who argues that the Patriot Act (search) has been a vital tool in the War on Terror, and the legislation should be extended.
Convention week has been marked by protests against the Patriot Act and other related laws, but the debate played out in a more staid format on Wednesday at a midtown Manhattan law firm.
At a conference organized by the Arab American Institute (search) and the American Conservative Union (search), Barr was critical not only of the Patriot Act, but he also worried about CAPPS II (search), “which would have color-coded citizens in a way reminiscent of a totalitarian regime.”
He criticized this scrutiny of airplane passengers that CAPPS II permits.
“As long as someone does not have a weapon, that should be the end of the government’s concern,” Barr said. “We ought not to stand for our government creating dossiers on law abiding citizens and lawful visitors to our country.”
But the administration has no interest in eroding civil liberties and in fact the Patriot Act protects them, said Barbara Comstock, former spokeswoman for Attorney General John Ashcroft (search).
Within the Patriot Act are “special provisions to monitor civil liberties … Every six months, the attorney general is required to file a report, and he does.”
Former Bush administration official David Aufhauser said positions on the Patriot Act are based on two things: one’s perception of the “immediacy of the terror threat” and “how much faith you have in the government.”
Reflecting this blueprint, Republican delegates offered a range of opinions on the Patriot Act, but were generally supportive of Bush’s position that the legislation is necessary to fight the War on Terror domestically.
The Patriot Act “doesn’t look like it’s going to be an infringement on honest, law-abiding citizens. We have to protect ourselves, and we need the tools to do it,” said John Hayssley, a Bush supporter from Houston, Texas, and the husband of a delegate.
Also supportive of the president’s policies was Frankie Middleton, a Republican activist from Sumter Township, Mich.
“Why would I care about my rights if I’m dead? I’d rather them be able to check out people of any group. If I have nothing to hide, then I have no” reason to be worried, he said.
But other delegates were more cautious. Predicting that the legislation may need to be tweaked, Daniel Branch, a delegate from Dallas, Texas, said, “My view is that a lot of times when you have reform quickly, sometimes it takes a while” to see what adjustments need to be made.
George Salem, a Republican activist and chairman of the Arab American Institute, understood the issues facing lawmakers, but thought a better job could be done.
“We have to attempt to balance the obvious national security concerns with protecting our civil liberties,” Salem said. "As someone who represents major Middle East investors, there are such excesses. … One wire transfer to a charity opens the person to all of their records being scrutinized. … That can’t be fair.”
The primary critique within the debate is a fear that government is taking too much power while individual rights are receding. Aufhauser, chairman of the National Security Council’s (search) committee against terrorist financing and former general counsel of the Treasury Department, dismissed fears that the additional government power would be abused.
“The folks who get this responsibility — Democrat or Republican — don’t have the time to abuse this power. … No one deliberately abuses the system,” he said, adding that people do not go through the hassle of an extensive security clearance in order to abuse their power.
This argument did not sit well with conservative activist and Bush ally Grover Norquist.
“The Constitution (search) is not designed for people we can trust. The Constitution is designed because from time to time people come into power who we can’t trust,” he said. “You may not be worried about Bush’s people, but what about a Hillary Clinton administration?”
Norquist, an unapologetic Republican who has worked hard with his grassroots Americans for Tax Reform (search) group to re-elect Bush and co-founded the Islamic Free Market Institute, said the civil liberties issue should not be ceded to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (search).
“It’s very healthy for the right to focus on civil liberties and not leave it up to the left to take care of.”
He concluded by warning the audience to be wary of government power.
“Sometimes good people will be enforcing this law. Sometimes bad people will be. So we need to write laws so bad people can’t take advantage of them,” he said. “This isn’t communist. This isn’t traitorous. This isn’t terrorist. There are serious questions about the Patriot Act.”