Patriot Act Faces Scrutiny in 2005

Everyone who has had a problem with the USA Patriot Act (search) over the last three years — from librarians and civil libertarians to Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike — will soon get a crack at contesting it, when the law's most controversial provisions come up for renewal at the end of 2005.

"We’re planning a very busy year on this,” said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of government relations for the American Library Association (search), which opposes the measures that give federal agents broadened authority to access personal records, including library records.

Former Republican Rep. Bob Barr (search), who was responsible for putting the sunset provisions into the Patriot Act when it passed in 2001, predicted "a major battle" for civil libertarians in 2005.

"This is going to be a critical year," said Barr, who now consults with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union.

Several lawmakers told that they welcome a healthy airing of the Patriot Act, and predicted that the debate will likely come up during confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales (search), who has been tapped by President Bush to be the next attorney general.

“[The Patriot Act] is going to be an issue and it’s going to be front and center in the hearings for Alberto Gonzales,” said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed frustration with what they say is a lack of solid information about how the Patriot Act has been used since its passage three years ago. Though the Department of Justice is required to give Congress regular reports as part of general oversight mandates, critics say the data are often too vague or classified.

“It has been difficult to review the Patriot Act because the Justice Department has been so secretive about its use,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement to “Just last week, DOJ told the committee it was unable to verify many of its Patriot claims.”

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who once said that the expiring measures in the Patriot Act would be rubber-stamped for the president “over my dead body,” nonetheless says the Justice Department has been responding to the committee’s more recent requests for information.

“Oversight is clearly an ongoing issue, but I would say he is satisfied with their responses to oversight requests and they have improved,” said Sensenbrenner’s spokesman Jeff Lundgren. The chairman, however, expects "a very full debate” over reauthorization, Lundgren added.

The Patriot Act was signed into law weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to give federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies enhanced powers to better wage the War on Terror. It includes sweeping domestic surveillance powers that allow law enforcement to communicate better with intelligence gatherers, get search warrants quickly and more easily and to keep investigations secret.

The provisions also include new capabilities to conduct surveillance over the Internet, go after money-laundering operations, sift through personal accounts and records, freeze foreign assets and detain and deport illegal aliens in the United States.

But not all new powers are strictly limited to terrorist investigations. In fact, they broaden the scope of federal powers in criminal investigations, too.

The Patriot Act was used to probe the financial records of a Las Vegas strip club owner and several local politicians in a 2003 corruption investigation. The Department of Justice, in its annual report to Congress in July, said that among the hundreds of terror prosecutions and convictions handled under the Patriot Act since 2001, surveillance and money-laundering provisions were used to prosecute credit-card fraud over the Internet, kidnappers, computer hackers, Internet child pornographers, child molesters and drug dealers.

Click here for some of the more hotly debated provisions that the Congress must vote to reauthorize next year.

Supporters of the Patriot Act say the government has been able to deter further acts of terror, pursuing an aggressive, proactive approach to intelligence gathering and prosecution that just didn’t exist prior to Sept. 11.

“I would say the Patriot Act has been very successful. Number one, we have deterred any subsequent 9/11-type of events, we’ve apprehended hundreds of individuals and identified terrorists, all without abusing civil liberties,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

“We certainly want to continue congressional oversight, but I find much of the complaining is either misdirected — that it’s not really a Patriot Act problem — or it’s hysterically theoretical and doesn't affect the lives of Americans day-to-day.”

But other Republicans and Democrats continue to see the validity of placing expirations on some of the more controversial measures. They point to provisions that have already been struck down in federal court as unconstitutional.

"Congress really intended for these to be extraordinary powers — not for the government to use them in non-extraordinary criminal cases — I think it's contrary to the intent of Congress," said Barr, who pushed for limitations to the Patriot Act that didn’t end up in the final package.

"Congress needs to do what it's supposed to do and to conduct aggressive oversight and not be steamrolled," he added.

Bipartisan proposals that would place limitations on the more controversial measures, such as ensuring judicial oversight on secret warrant applications and records gathering, have so far been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, as of this month, 363 communities and counties, including major cities like Dallas, Denver and New York, have passed resolutions protesting or boycotting Patriot Act provisions. Four states — Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont and Maine — have done the same.

But Bush has said repeatedly since his State of the Union address last January that he will push hard for the full reauthorization of the Patriot Act next year.

Dave Kopel, a senior fellow with the Independence Institute (search), said that while the Patriot Act has been successful as an “emergency wartime measure,” it is important for congressional review of many of the provisions to determine whether their powers are too broad. “I think it ought to be on the table to extend them, but not necessarily to make them permanent," he said.

James Carafano, national security expert with the Heritage Foundation (search), welcomed the debate, but said the provisions should, and most likely will, be reauthorized.

“These are things that should be debated and the administration shouldn’t run from a debate," he said. "It’s got nothing to be ashamed of.”