Critics Say Patriot Act Tramples on Civil Liberties

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, August 19, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: As we've seen from today's bloody bombing in Baghdad, the war on terror is far from over. Here in the States, Congress passed the Patriot Act (search) a few weeks after 9/11 to help prevent further acts of terror. But critics have been attacking the new law, complaining that it tramples too heavily on our civil liberties. Starting today, Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) is crisscrossing the country trying to explain the law and why we need it.

Ron Daniels is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (search) and, Ron, that is today's big question. Why does John Ashcroft need to defend the Patriot Act?

RON DANIELS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Well, I think because initially there was a sense after 9/11, people were traumatized, and they were willing to give up a lot of civil liberties. The Patriot Act has proven not to be so good in many respects. You have people who go to a library and find that their books, what they're reading, can be checked upon. Sneak and peek. Somebody can take a look in your computer without your even knowing about it.

GIBSON: Just the other day, Ron, we caught this guy in Newark, who was trying to import 50 shoulder-fired missiles into this country to take down planes flying out of JFK or La Guardia or Newark. It's not even a week ago that happened and we know they're still trying to kill us. Shouldn't we be going after them any way we can?

DANIELS:  Well, not any way we can. See, that's the operative word. The other thing that has been shown in terms of 9/11 is that if our intelligence agencies had actually been cooperating and collaborating in terms of their information, there is a good probability that 9/11 may not have happened. So, many of us believe that certainly we want effective intelligence work and effective work on terrorism. But we don't want it to be a thing where people are being harassed and intimidated.

GIBSON: We can't even get librarians to tap a kid on a shoulder and get off the porn site in the middle of a public library. The rights are so preeminent in a public library that if a guy is in there figuring out how to make a bomb or a missile or how to bring down a plane, a librarian can't go over and look at it or call a cop. That's counterintuitive. Why should those people be able to hide behind your rights and my rights when they're trying to kill us?

DANIELS:  Well, the first thing is, if a librarian sees someone reading something that they think is suspicious, we all are now on alert that if something unusual is happening, we ought to report it. The point is, everybody ought not to be subjected to a situation that when you go to the library, somebody is checking out what books you're going to read.

GIBSON: You said yourself that the intelligence agencies failed us on 9/11.

DANIELS:  They didn't cooperate with each other.

GIBSON: One of the reasons is, if it were to happen again, is they're overwhelmed. They don't have time to look at what you're reading or I'm reading. They're busy finding guys who want to blow us up. They haven't got e time to fool around with millions of Americans and all the millions of books they read.

DANIELS:  The point we're simply making is that with the Patriot Act and other positions that Ashcroft has so boldly imposed, we as Americans don't want to give up our civil liberties. We want to beat the terrorists. We don't want to yield to them. If, in fact, we lose in the process our cherished civil liberties then the terrorists will have won. In our democracy, we have the Bill of Rights that says certain things cannot be done. We have to have a balance between security and between our rights. I want effective rights ...

GIBSON: I don't want to give up your rights and I don't want to give up mine. But if somebody is trying to kill 'em, I think it's a fairly easy tradeoff: they don't get to kill 3,000 people and somebody looks at their books at the library. That is an easy decision to make.

DANIELS:  Well, my thing is, if the intelligence agency is doing the work it should have been doing, perhaps those 3,000 people would not have been killed.

GIBSON: Perhaps, not.

DANIELS:  And we don't want to be in a situation in a democracy where it is predicated on our precious civil liberties that we yield those civil liberties in the name of fighting against terrorism, because then the terrorists really win.

GIBSON: Well, in theory ...

DANIELS:  We have situations where we have a young lady who has an unflattering picture of George Bush on the wall and she gets visited by the FBI or someone who is talking about ...

GIBSON: That is a wretched excess. That is not what the Patriot Act is all about. If the FBI is doing that, you should nail them. But if they are going around looking for people, even if they're doing black-bag jobs on people who could be terrorists trying to kill us, I say, “Go get 'em.”

DANIELS:  The question is, you have to have reasonable suspicion and probable cause. And when you do it blanket willy-nilly, that's the problem. Or when you're in a situation where somebody can just sneak and take a peek in your computer, because you may just been involved in an organization that's been out there protesting ...

GIBSON: Do you think that's really happening?

DANIELS:  Of course it's happening.

GIBSON: You honestly believe that's happening?

DANIELS:  And the other thing is with the Patriot Act, quite frankly, it is so secretive that we really don't know in many instances what is happening. Whenever we get into a situation where we have that degree of secrecy, which is what we railed about in terms of other nations, then there is always the possibility ...

GIBSON: Object to the Patriot Act, why don't you and your organization simply say, “Look, when the day comes that the war on terror is over, we want this thing to go away?”

DANIELS:  Because what happens in the process is you yield too much power to the executives and you have abuses… in terms of the general war on terrorism, you have people sitting in places who haven't been able to see their families or friends or lawyers.

GIBSON: If your rights are violated by the Patriot Act, you can come right here and you can raise holy heck about it and make sure that they go back in line. I have a suspicion they're not looking at you and they're not looking at me. We know who they're looking at. They're going after people who have hard suspicion of engaging in terrorist acts.

DANIELS:  Well, what we're really finding is a lot of profiling of people who happen to be Muslim. A lot of profiling of people who happen to be Middle Eastern-looking or people who happen to be from southeast Asia. And it's the kind of broad-brush approach that really ends up making a lot of people hostile towards us. And it really may create more anger than it does really resolve the problem.

GIBSON: We beg their indulgence. But some of the people who are trying to kill us are moving among them, and we may have to bruise their rights while we look for those killers.

DANIELS:  Yes. And that happened in World War II with the people who got bruised ...

GIBSON: Nobody is talking about interning people.

DANIELS:  Well, but we don't know. Where does the slippery slope stop once we decide that it's okay to violate civil liberties in the interest of preserving peace?

GIBSON: I'll make you a promise. If you hear about interning anybody, you come right back and sit there and you can scream bloody murder.

DANIELS:  I certainly will do that, that's for sure.

GIBSON: Ron Daniels, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

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