Viewpoint: Patriot Act gets worse

These people never stop. If they can’t get their nefarious ends accomplished one way, they try another. We thought the Victory Act was shot to pieces; not so.

That spineless assembly in Washington—the U.S. Congress—is ready to pass new legislation that will substantially expand the USA Patriot Act.

All it took was a little heat from the Bush White House, and away they went, selling us down the river. The item in question is the 2004 Intelligence Authorization bill.

A joint House-Senate conference committee has approved a provision in the bill that allows the FBI to march into most any business and demand its records without so much as approval by a judge, a grand jury or by your leave.

The Feds need only claim the information is relevant to a terror investigation. This measure will let the FBI grab bank and credit union records, securities dealers info, currency exchanges, travel agencies, car dealers, post offices, casinos, pawnbrokers or anybody else that–according to the government•has a “high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters.”

These seizures could be done with the approval of the judicial branch. Formerly only banks, credit unions and other financial institutions were required to give up such records on the FBI’s demand.

The House, which contains a higher proportion of weasels than the Senate, passed the authorization bill 263-163. The Senate is expected to pass it soon.

The House vote was notable for the defection of several conservative Republicans from the administration camp.

“This Patriot Act expansion was the only controversial part of this legislation, and it prompted more than a third of the House, including 15 conservative Republicans, to change what is normally a cakewalk vote into something truly contested,” said Timothy Edgar, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.

“One need look no further than this vote to get an effective gauge of the Patriot Act’s lack of popularity on Capitol Hill and among the American people,” he said.

More than 200 local governments, among them some of the nation’s largest cities, have adopted resolutions upholding our constitutional rights and urging the law’s scope be restricted.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been holding a series of hearings to examine the effect of the Patriot Act.

Members of the Judiciary Committee and five Democratic senators sent a letter to the conference committee last week asking them to remove the authority to seize records.

“I’m concerned about this,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who tried to put a time limit on that provision. Durbin told The New York Times: “The idea of expanding the powers of government gives everyone pause, except the Republican leadership.”

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft claims the government needs these powers to better combat terrorism. That sounds good, but the brief track record so far is not encouraging.

Congressmen already have documented several instances in which the Patriot Act was used in ordinary, commonplace criminal investigations. Abuse of these powers is virtually certain and therefore should be prohibited or greatly restricted. At a minimum, there should be judicial oversight.

The provision on records not only would allow seizure of more kinds of records, it also would bar the businesses involved from informing the customers being scrutinized by the federal government.

The Patriot Act provides sanction for the FBI to seize library records and puts a gag order on the librarians, barring them from informing patrons of the seizure. Librarians and civil liberties groups have filed suit against the government, arguing that such provisions are unconstitutional.

“The more checks and balances against government abuse are eroded, the greater that abuse,” said the ACLU’s Edgar. “We’re going to regret these initiatives down the road.”

More on this issue can be found on the Web site: Bill of Rights Defense

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