Montana Viewpoint©
Congress votes on the Patriot Act renewal this week. Itís a bad deal.

December 12, 2005

The renewal of certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act is up for a vote this week, and liberal Senator Russell Feingold (D, Wisconsin) has threatened a filibuster to prevent it from being voted on. If you knew that this measure was also opposed by the ACLU, it wouldn’t surprise you that liberals would oppose renewal. But it’s also opposed by Gun Owners of America and conservative Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). What gives?

Originally initiated as a response to terrorist threats following 9-11, the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act,” allows federal authorities unprecedented access to personal information such as library records, internet use, medical records, church attendance, and airline travel.

When it became clear to many that parts of the Patriot Act were more threatening to American’s freedom than terrorist groups themselves, it garnered opposition from both right and left such as The Eagle Forum, the ACLU, and the Cato Institute.

What’s the big deal? Many responsible people acknowledge that some portions of the act are needed because of changing technology and the need to respond to terrorist threats.

But there are other provisions that are not so benign, and are not directed at terrorists but at every day Americans; take, for instance, National Security Letters. National Security Letters give the FBI the authority to get files from libraries, internet providers, airlines hotels, etc., without a warrant or judicial permission. They are, in effect, a carte blanche to spy on law abiding citizens. During New Years 2003, the FBI requisitioned travel, hotel, and credit card records of 300,000 people spending the holiday in Las Vegas.

A “gag” order goes along with the request for records. It makes it illegal for the person providing the records to the FBI to tell anyone about it, including the people about whom the information is being gathered.

Before the USA PATRIOT Act  there were about 3000 National Security Letter requests for information a year. That number is now reported at 30,000, but the Justice Department denies that. How many were there then? Sorry, that’s classified information.

This is the exact issue for which the American Revolution was fought. British officials, armed with what were then termed “Writs of Assistance” had authority to enter and search anyone’s home or business at the whim of the officer possessing the writ.

A major opponent of the measure is the American Library Association. Librarians have apparently infuriated the FBI according to a story in the December 11, 2005 New York Times.

Miffed at the Department of Justice for not  granting the FBI as much leeway to gather personal records as it would like, the writer of one internal FBI message ranted about being “kicked around” by “radical militant librarians.”

The concern of many is that provisions, which were imposed for only a limited amount of time and are set to expire on December 31, will be renewed. They include allowing secret searches of homes and property without prior judicial approval, no requirement to inform the owner until sometime after the search, and the ability to seize records as previously noted.

An alternate piece of legislation that would have provided ample tools to fight terrorism without stealing American’s rights never got out of committee.

Seven states, including Montana, have passed resolutions opposing the most egregious portions of the Act. Montana’s resolution asking our congressional delegation to vote against renewing portions of the Act passed the Senate 40-10, and the House 87-12. It had overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats.

The White House is pushing strongly for the current bill which does not address the concerns of the opponents. The vote is this week.

If this issue concerns you, now is the time to call Senators Conrad Burns (1-800-344-1513) and Max Baucus (1-800-332-6106) to let them know. Remind them that Montana’s resolution against renewal of the provisions in the USA PATRIOT ACT, SJ 19, was adopted overwhelmingly by the Montana Legislature. Remind them that it asked them to vote against renewal.

Never have the words, “I love my country but fear my government” rung so true for me.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620