Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Patriot Act Redux, and in the Dark

The New York Times
Patriot Act Redux, and in the Dark

The Patriot Act was passed in haste, in the angst-filled days after the Sept. 11 attacks, with some lawmakers candidly admitting they never read the details. That was one of the reasons key sections included expiration dates, so calmer heads of the future would have an opportunity to fix mistakes. Now that opportunity is here, and far from removing obvious threats to civil liberties in the law, the White House and eager Senate Republicans seem bent on making it worse.

Citizens who want to keep an eye on the process will have no easy task. The most crucial debates of the Senate Intelligence Committee are being kept closed to the public.

This is a terrible idea that gives credence to the worst fears of opponents of Patriot Act I. When the committee resumes its work next week, its leaders should rethink their policy and open their deliberations to the light of day. Accommodations can be made for legitimate security concerns without keeping such a bedrock issue under wraps.

One of the most common complaints about the Patriot Act is that rather than addressing the real but narrow problems with existing law, it was a wish list of powers law enforcement officials had yearned for over the years that Congress had rightly resisted conferring. Now the Bush administration and its Senate allies have come up with another: a proposal to let F.B.I. agents write their own "administrative subpoenas," without the need to consult prosecutors or judges, in demand of all manner of records, from business to medical and tax data. There is no serious evidence that agents have been hamstrung by the lack of such wide authority.

Freeing agents from getting a judge's sign-off is an invitation to overreaching and abuse, as is a proposal to let the F.B.I. ignore postal law restraints when antiterrorism agents choose to monitor someone's letter envelopes and package covers.

Parts of the existing Patriot Act are reasonable law enforcement measures, but other sections should be repealed. Chief among these is the so-called library provision that lets the government seize entire databases at libraries, hospitals and other institutions when just one person is under investigation. Another part of the law makes it a crime for record holders to let the public know when a government data sweep has occurred.

Legitimate complaints that the existing law is overbearing have been heard from hundreds of state and local officials and from civil liberty and libertarian groups. Rather than addressing these flaws, Senate Republicans seem to be planning to compound them, under cover of closed hearings.