Second Anniversary of Patriot Act Spurs Criticism in Washington [3]

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI)

Two years after Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, the debate over the controversial bill took center stage in Washington, D.C. On October 21, there was a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the bill, and, on the following day, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) -- the only senator who did not vote for the Patriot Act -- marked its second anniversary by discussing the growing bipartisan concern about some of the bill's provisions.

On October 22, in a speech from the floor of the Senate, Feingold called on President Bush to address the growing concerns of American citizens that the Patriot Act threatens the civil liberties that have been guaranteed by "our constitution for over 200 years. The chorus of voices of doubt has grown so loud that the Bush Administration has responded -- but not, I am sorry to say, by addressing these concerns in a constructive and open way.

"Rather, the Administration has initiated what seems to be a public relations campaign in recent weeks to defend the Patriot Act. The Attorney General [John Ashcroft] has gone on the road and on the Internet to extol the virtues of the law…. [H]e has ridiculed and dismissed those who have raised concerns."

Feingold continued, "I think these words are unfortunate," and he noted that the administration appears "unwilling to even acknowledge the legitimate concerns of many Americans. And it objects to common sense proposals to protect privacy and civil liberties that would not in any way undermine the fight against terrorism."

Senator Feingold explained that his proposed legislation, The Library, Bookseller, and Personal Records Privacy Act, and Senator Larry Craig (R-ID)'s bill, the SAFE Act, would protect the constitutional rights of innocent citizens, "while still allowing the FBI to do its job to protect our nation from another terrorist attack." (To read a previous BTW article on Feingold's bill, click here [4]. For an article on Senator Craig's bill, click here [5].)

"There is strong and growing bi-partisan support for changes to the Act to protect our rights and liberties," Feingold stressed. "I am confident that this right-left-moderate coalition of support will continue to grow and eventually occupy the center, as more and more Americans learn what the law means."

The Wisconsin senator also chastised the Bush Administration for not only failing to engage in "honest dialogue about the Patriot Act," but also for proposing that Congress grant it even more power. "The administration has announced its support for three legislative proposals to expand executive branch power and diminish the role of judges, an essential part of our nation's system of checks and balance," he said. "One proposal grants the Attorney General significant power to compel people to testify or [or to produce] documents, all without prior court approval. A second proposal broadens the presumption of pretrial detention to cases that may not even involve terrorism. Finally, the third proposal expands the federal death penalty."

In his conclusion, Feingold said, "The burden is on the Administration to show Congress and the American people why current law is inadequate, why it needs even more power, and how the powers it already has and the new powers it seeks are consistent with the Constitution and Bill of Rights….

"That, Mr. President, would be the patriotic thing to do."

The day prior to Feingold's speech, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an oversight hearing on the USA Patriot Act, and other issues, such as gun control and CIA leaks, titled "Protecting Our National Security From Terrorist Attacks: A Review of Criminal Terrorism Investigations and Prosecutions."

At the hearing, several senators were critical of Ashcroft for his absence. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), noted in his opening statement, "I expect the Attorney General to participate in these hearings, and I am disappointed that we will not be hearing from him today. Unlike other senior Administration officials who regularly participate in oversight hearings, Attorney General Ashcroft has appeared before this Committee only once this year, and then only for a short time," as reported by Tech Law Journal.

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) expressed criticism of Ashcroft for waging a public relations campaign to drum up support for the Patriot Act.

Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), who supports the Patriot Act, said he is troubled by the Justice Department's "shroud of secrecy," the TLJ article noted, and Biden warned Justice officials at the meeting that "the Act will be repealed unless you guys get your act together."

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray tried to assuage Patriot Act critics. He contended that the provision regarding Internet surveillance, for example, simply brings the law up-to-date with current technology, "so we no longer have to fight a digital-age battle with antique weapons." He referred to the "sneak-and-peek" provision of the Patriot Act as "another important tool" that "allows investigators, with court approval, to delay notifying the target of a search for a limited time while the warrant is executed.… The Patriot Act simply codified the case law in this area to provide certainty and nationwide consistency in terrorism and other criminal investigations," as reported by TLJ.

Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) said he believed that average critics of the USA Patriot Act often couldn't be specific about what part of the law they dislike, as reported by the Associated Press. However, "who has the burden of proof when it comes to taking away the rights and liberties of Americans?" he said. "It certainly is the government's burden to prove that."