Civil Liberties Takes a Beating in Latest Patriot Act Dispute

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — Democrats and civil liberties groups arguing for limits on the invasive, highly secretive snooping powers granted to law enforcement under the Patriot Act have been snubbed at every turn as the Republican-controlled Congress seems unwilling to make even minor concessions.

The law, passed hastily in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, gives the government unprecedented license to spy and collect information on citizens.

Many provisions are set to expire at the end of this year, but President Bush is pushing Congress to make the entire law permanent, and his enforcers in Congress have seized on last week’s London subway bombings to press their case.

Among the most controversial provisions, law enforcement can demand records from ISPs, bookstores and other businesses without approval from a judge — even if the person being investigated has no history of criminal behavior — and forbid businesses from alerting customers that they are being investigated.

House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who in 2001 said the Patriot Act would be made permanent “over my dead body,” pulled the ultimate flip-flop when he introduced legislation Wednesday that would, in fact, make the law permanent.

Critics of the law have said the London attacks also will make it less likely that Republican dissenters would go against the party line to oppose the bill.

Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write and International Program, PEN American Center, issued a press release that said, “[President Bush’s] position has been strengthened in the aftermath of the terrible London bombings.

“It is important to tell Congress not to make the same mistake that it made following the Sept. 11 attacks by compromising civil liberties without providing any real protection against terrorism,” the release continued. “This may be our last chance to influence legislation in the House.”

The Free Speech Coalition dedicated its political action center at the recent Erotica LA to rallying support for the repeal of the Patriot Act.

FSC Legislative Affairs Director Kat Sunlone told XBiz that both fans and people who work in adult entertainment need to be educated about how important the issue is to the industry.

Some family members of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have joined the fight against the Patriot Act, saying they take offense to the Bush administration using the tragedy to sell its agenda.

“The Patriot Act would not have stopped 9/11,” Lorie Van Auken, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center, said. “What I have learned in the past three years is that hollow rhetoric and nerve is not what it takes to make us truly safe from terrorists.”

The FSC, along with groups such as the ACLU, have thrown support behind another bill before Congress, the Safe Act, which they say could reverse many of the more onerous aspects of the law and restore lost rights while also providing law enforcement with adequate tools for fighting terrorism.

In past weeks, Democrats have attempted to introduce legislation to eliminate or limit unwarranted, secretive searches but have been unsuccessful.

In one instance, Sensenbrenner broke house rules by unilaterally closing a hearing on the law when Democrats seemed to be winning the argument.

That Sensenbrenner can get away with such behavior speaks volumes about the lack of Democratic muscle in federal government, congressional insiders say.