Patriot Act: What's Not Known Feeds Debate ; Bush Officials Say That Controversial Law-Enforcement Powers Are Working, and Should Be Extended
Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Time isn't easing concerns over the enhanced law-enforcement powers of the USA Patriot Act, judging by the debate that's firing up on Capitol Hill over the renewal of its expiring provisions.
President Bush calls the Patriot Act an invaluable tool in the war on terror, but, until this week, little was known about where, why, or how often the law has been applied.
At the same time, confusion persists over what the law actually does. Critics sometimes conflate Patriot Act provisions with other controversial moves, such as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that have nothing to do with the act. Last week, Montana became the fifth state to pass a resolution critical of the Act. Since 2001, more than 375 local governments have passed resolutions criticizing the law or declaring "civil liberties safe zones" in a bid to discourage cooperation with the law.
But few cases of actual abuse of the law have surfaced. No one, for example, has come forward to claim the compensation provided in the law for abuse of civil rights. One reason, critics say, is that the most invasive powers of the Patriot Act are exercised secretly, some accompanied with gag orders. That means that a librarian, for example, who discloses a request for records under the Patriot Act could be subject to criminal prosecution.
"For these reasons, it has been extremely difficult to uncover information about how the Patriot Act has been used, and even information about whether particular sections have been used at all," wrote Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an April 5 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
New insights into law's use
On Monday, a day before Senate oversight hearings on the Patriot Act, the Justice Department released some of this information for the first time: Roving wiretaps have been used 49 times under the law. The law's new powers to seize personal records have been used 35 times, none involving medical, library, bookstore, or gun sale records. And delayed-notification search warrants, dubbed "sneak and peek" by critics, have been used 155 times (this doesn't expire at year-end, as Congress demanded for the most controversial provisions).
The new information, while answering some questions, has raised others.
As recently as September 2003, then-Attorney General Ashcroft told Congress that the personal records provision had never been used at all, prompting questions from lawmakers on why it's apparently been used 35 times since then.
And, in an exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, FBI director Robert Mueller said that one reason federal officials had not had to invoke the law to gain access to library records is that "we have had the cooperation of the libraries to date." The comment caught the attention of a representative from the American Library Association, present at Tuesday's Senate hearing. …