Journalists Alert Public to Dangers of Secrecy

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnold Ismach For The Register-Guard

"Do you feel safer in the dark?"

That's the question a group of journalists is asking Oregonians in the wake of the USA Patriot Act. They offer an answer, too: "Secrecy scares me more than terrorism."

The two quotes are featured in a poster that the Greater Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is distributing statewide. It's part a campaign by the chapter to alert the public to government efforts to operate behind closed doors despite constitutional guarantees that the public's business will be conducted in public.

The campaign applies directly to the Patriot Act, because some provisions of the act allow law enforcement agencies to act in secrecy. Many civic and professional groups are challenging the act, but most of those complaints are centered on the loss of personal privacy rights.

The Patriot Act was adopted following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with little debate in Congress or on Main Street. The complex law gave federal agents sweeping new powers to spy on people and detain suspects. Citizens, fearful of the new specter of terrorism in their own backyards, welcomed any move to counter that threat.

But it didn't take long for doubts to emerge. Now, almost two years since adoption, criticism of the act is rising to a crescendo, goading Attorney General John Ashcroft to launch a national speaking tour to defend the act. The bipartisan nature of the criticism may have prompted Ashcroft to put on the gloves. Groups as diverse as the League of Women Voters and the American Conservative Union have objections. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged one section of the act in court.

Local governments have joined the chorus. More than 150 cities and counties, including Lane County and Eugene, have adopted resolutions calling for repeal or revision of the act. Three state legislatures have passed such resolutions.

Efforts to amend the act and remove some of the objectionable provisions are bubbling in Congress, with bipartisan support. Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio are among the leaders in this effort.

Ashcroft is proposing new legislation that would eliminate the act's 2005 sunset clause and expand powers to investigate, arrest and detain. One bill would allow the government to strip citizenship from people lawfully supporting groups allegedly engaged in terrorism. Others would expand police powers to engage in profiling of suspect groups.

The existing Patriot Act gives the government expanded authority to eavesdrop on individuals - their computer records, their library borrowing, their purchases, their medical records, their telephone conversations. …