Montana Viewpoint

October 16, 2006

The USA PATRIOT ACT is much in the news these days as a staple in the Burns-Tester debates. I was the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 19 (SJ 19), which called on Senators Burns, Baucus, and Congressman Rehberg to allow certain unconstitutional provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act to expire. So now since I, along with 127 of my legislative colleagues, have been labeled by Senator Burns as a terrorist or Mafioso for “opposing” the USA PATRIOT Act, I’d like to ante up my two cents.

The tortuously named “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” was passed by Congress shortly after September 11, 2001. Some of the provisions included in the Act were, by American standards of freedom, so severe that Congress recognized they should not become permanent law, but would expire unless renewed by Congress when the USA PATRIOT Act came up for review in 2005.

And just what were these provisions? Essentially they gave the Federal government the right to invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens by seizing their bank records, firearms information, medical records, church membership records, credit card transactions, phone calls, internet use, etc., all without having to give a reason, get a warrant, or tell us that they had done it; and making it a crime for the people they got the records from to tell us.

Americans have a constitutional right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures…” This part of the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution was not written to defend some abstract concept of privacy, but as a direct result of excesses by the British government.

Agents of the King held documents called General Warrants “…by which an officer may search suspected places, without evidence of the commission of a fact, or seize any person without evidence of his crime…Every thing the most sacred may be searched and ransacked by the strong hand of power” (Patrick Henry, 1788).

In short, the citizen legislators of Montana were asking our congressional delegation to restore to us those rights that our own government had taken from us; the very rights that we had held dear enough in 1776 to declare war against the most powerful nation in the world to secure.

This is far from a partisan political issue. SJ 19 was passed overwhelmingly by Republican and Democratic legislators alike. In fact, some of the staunchest supporters were Republicans, who argued eloquently for the resolution that Mr. Burns summarily ignored. The 128 legislators who voted for SJ 19 represent 94% of the citizens of Montana.

The USA PATRIOT act was not just an issue of concern only to the Legislature. The counties of Beaverhead, Lewis and Clark, and Butte-Silver Bow; and the cities of Dillon, Eureka, Missoula, Whitefish, Bozeman, Hot Springs, and Helena passed similar resolutions calling for restoration of our rights.

None of us are unpatriotic, all of us want to safeguard our nation from terrorists, but we do not believe we have to destroy the constitutional fabric of our country to do it. SJ 19 was supported by organizations as different as the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the ACLU. In Idaho, renewal of those parts of the USA PATRIOT Act was actively opposed by Senator Larry Craig and Representative Butch Otter, both Republicans. Terrorists and Mafioso to the core, I trust.

Phyllis Schlafly, President of the Eagle Forum, offered the most eloquent argument against renewal of the Act when she said to Congress, “We do not want an American society where everyone is treated as a terrorist, money launderer, drug trafficker, or criminal. Only totalitarian regimes monitor the private actions of law-abiding citizens.”

By willfully ignoring the will of the people he represents, Senator Burns has relinquished any right to take the moral high ground, let alone accuse law abiding Montanans of being terrorists.

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