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Pros & Cons of the PATRIOT Act

Robert Downes - August 7th, 2003
Is the USA PATRIOT Act a serious threat to the Bill of Rights and the liberties of American citizens? Or, is it simply a well-regulated set of tools to allow federal agents to track down terrorists in a fast-moving age of cyber communications?
Those were the positions carved out by opposite sides at a forum held last Thursday at the Traverse Area District Library on “How Does the USA PATRIOT Act Impact You?“
The 347-page Act was rushed into law at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice just 45 days after the 9/11 disaster and overwhelmingly approved by legislators who had little or no chance to read its convoluted language and obscure references. Since that time, it has been perceived as a grave threat by civil libertarians and librarians across the country.
Following are some viewpoints presented at the week‘s forum, which was packed to overflow capacity:

• *Michael Dettmer,* former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan and an associate attorney with Parsons, Ringsmuth PLC in Traverse City.
Dettmer gave an historical overview of governmental abuses of power. “Each of us have an inherent and very human ability to abuse the trust of power,“ he noted, adding that elected officials have erred throughout U.S. history in suspending constitutional rights in time of war.
Abuses of the past have included:
-- The Alien and Sedition Act of the 1790s, which made it illegal to criticize the government and made it possible to expel from the country any male over the age of 14 who was perceived as a threat to national security.
-- Abraham Lincoln‘s suspension of habeas corpus (due process of law) during the Civil War; an event which also featured military tribunals, unlawful restraint, and loyalty oaths.
-- The Palmer Raids of 1919-‘20, in which an estimated 70,000 suspected communists were terrorized by law enforcement. Some 250 aliens were deported to the Soviet Union without trial, never to be heard from again.
-- The detention of 120,000 Japanese Americans and the seizure of their property during WWII.
-- The Red Scare kangaroo court hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s.
-- FBI abuses during the ‘60s, and the lawless presidency of Richard Nixon in the ‘70s.
Dettmer recalled the words of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, who once said that, “In a time of war, the Constitution is silent.“ He fears that the ongoing War on Terrorism threatens the Constitution in the same manner.

• *Beth Hazen,* FBI agent and counsel for the Detroit office.
Hazen said the primary value of the PATRIOT Act is in allowing agents to get up to speed with terrorists who are equipped with more advanced communications than in the past, such as the internet.
“People who commit crimes hide evidence of their crimes, and that evidence may be in bank accounts, computers, and private conversations,“ she said. “If I‘m going to do my job, I have to be able to access private areas, but the greater the intrusion, the greater cause I have to show.“
Hazen said FBI agents have to go through many hurdles before surveillance is approved. A common surveillance tool is the “pin register device,“ which can be put on a suspect‘s phone line to capture incoming and outgoing phone numbers, along with the duration of calls -- all without listening to the actual conversations. The device makes it possible to track kidnappers, for instance, or determine the possible associates of a terror cell.
Prior to the PATRIOT Act, FBI agents had to get separate authorization for a pin register or a wiretap for every phone used by suspects to commit crimes. Today, the Act makes it possible for agents to move faster on a case by authorizing surveillance on all phones used by suspects. Hazen noted that the crime of terrorism wasn‘t a problem when wiretap laws were originally enacted; the PATRIOT Act simply gets the FBI up to speed on advances in communication.

• *Anne Seurynck,* counsel for the Michigan Library Association.
“Generally, librarians feel that the PATRIOT Act is an intrusion on the privacy of their patrons,“ Seurynck said. She noted that under the Michigan Library Privacy Act, the records of readers can‘t be obtained without a court order which requires a hearing. Librarians fear that the less restrictive PATRIOT Act and the FBI will run roughshod over the right to privacy. “Our biggest fear is that we believe it could cause a chilling effect on what people read.“

• *Lloyd Meyer,* Assistant U.S. Attorney/Anti-Terrorism Coordinator, Grand Rapids.
Meyer said a number of myths surround the PATRIOT Act and that it is more difficult to obtain permission for surveillance than most people realize. He said that current records for the period from Oct. 2001 to Feb. 2003 show that the FBI has not yet used the Act to access anyone‘s library records. He knows of no prosecutor who has ever snooped on library records.
Furthermore, he noted that the Director of the FBI himself, or his deputy, has to authorize such surveillance, and not just the average agent in the field. He noted that the Act could never be used for the investigation of citizens exercising their right to free speech, such as criticizing the government.
In rare instances, however, such powers would be helpful, Meyer said. He noted that when the Unabomber published his Manifesto, FBI agents recognized the names of four obscure books in the text and scoured library records in the San Francisco area in an attempt to track the bomber down. “Does that seem reasonable? To catch a person who had been killing people with bombs for 12 years? I submit that it does,“ he said.
Meyer also said the FBI used surveillance to bust a violent militia group in West Michigan five years ago. The militia schemed to blow up a federal building in Battle Creek, assassinate Sen. Carl Levin and Gov. John Engler, and blow up the interchange of 131 and I-94. He noted that if CIA agents in Kabul, Afghanistan found records tracking a sleeper cell to Traverse City, the PATRIOT Act would prove useful in relaying the message to Michigan FBI agents to launch an investigation.
Meyer said the Act “tears down the walls“ between the FBI‘s criminal investigation and intelligence-gathering arms, and makes it possible to share more information with the CIA as well as local law enforcement.

• *Noel Saleh,* attorney for the ACLU of Michigan.
Saleh noted that the reason stringent wiretap laws were enacted in the first place was because the FBI went far out of bounds in its abuse of surveillance on ordinary citizens in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He added that he had no problem with the provisions of the Act which authorize pin registers and wiretaps -- the larger question is the government‘s attack on the Bill of Rights.
“The PATIOT Act is not the issue we‘re really talking about when we discuss our concerns about the growing intrusion of government in our lives,“ Saleh said. “The PATRIOT Act is just a symbol of that intrusion.“
Saleh noted that following 9/11, more than 1,200 American non-immigrants were arrested and detained for indefinite periods, often held without cause and denied counsel under miserable conditions. Under the Bush administration, the government can declare a terror suspect an “enemy combatant,“ without the right to an attorney, held incommunicado, with summary justice rendered by a military tribunal.
“These were constitutional rights violations,“ Saleh said. “These are the concerns we‘re worried about.“
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