Patriot Act Push Angers Some on Right
A closed-door vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week to expand law enforcement powers under the USA Patriot Act is prompting sharp criticism from some conservative leaders who are otherwise among the most vocal allies of President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress.
The conservative leaders -- who have formed a coalition with critics on the left, including the American Civil Liberties Union -- vowed to press their concerns in coming days with public statements, rallies and radio advertisements in key congressional districts.
The conservatives, including former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and political activists who have been long-standing critics of the anti-terrorism law, lashed out with particular force last week against the White House, members of Congress and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. They said they had expected a more open review of the Patriot Act in which lawmakers considered some limits in order to safeguard civil liberties.
The conservatives complained that the Senate panel had moved in secret to expand the act. They are particularly upset about proposed “administrative subpoenas” that would let the FBI obtain a person’s medical, financial and other records in terrorism cases without seeking a judge’s approval.
Their criticism gathered force as Bush devoted two public events last week to pressing Congress to renew parts of the act due to expire at the end of this year.
The White House and the congressional leadership generally enjoy enthusiastic support from conservative activist organizations, though the Republican base has experienced profound disagreements over the decision to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and over the general expansion of government under President Bush.
But now, said conservative activist Grover Norquist, every major conservative grass-roots organization has expressed concern about expanding the Patriot Act. He emphasized that his concern was directed not at the White House but at Congress. Other conservative leaders, however, are aiming their criticism at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It is a slap in the face to the Constitution,” said Barr, who leads a bipartisan coalition calling for limits on the act.
Passed six weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was intended to give law enforcement more power to fight terrorism. But Barr and other critics say the law goes too far and gives federal investigators unbridled power that endangers civil rights. The proposed “administrative subpoenas” approved by the intelligence panel last week would “wipe away the 4th Amendment” protection against unreasonable searches, Barr said.
Barr also accused the president of giving “the back of his hand” to concerns about constitutional protections “that so many have fought and died for.”
The head of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, said he was upset that the administration appeared to be encouraging the Patriot Act provisions’ renewal through the more secretive Senate Intelligence Committee, despite pledges of openness and of a willingness to consider compromise. The Senate Judiciary Committee also has jurisdiction over renewing the act, but it has not begun deliberations, which are generally open to the public.
Keene is particularly upset with Atty. Gen. Gonzales, who has agreed in recent meetings with conservative activists, participants said, to the principle of open discussion and careful review of the Patriot Act before 16 of its most important provisions are renewed. The Intelligence Committee’s decision to proceed on the Patriot Act was made without objection from the White House or from Gonzales.
“I find it disquieting that he talks like he is a reasonable guy and then, when it comes down to it, acts like he is not,” Keene said. “We need to know: Who is the real Gonzales?”
Although Barr, Keene and a handful of other well-known conservatives are working with groups on the political left to limit the Patriot Act, Keene rejected arguments from the left that “there is a Republican plot to deprive of us of our rights. The fact is, this is what governments do,” regardless of who is in power, particularly in time of war.
Supporters of the Patriot Act (an acronym for Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) say the law fixes some of the intelligence and law enforcement problems that allowed the Sept. 11 terrorists to enter the country and proceed without detection.
Among other things, the massive, quickly approved measure permits “roving wiretaps” that allow officials to tap multiple phones used by a targeted person. It also encourages information sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies and permits investigators to subpoena library records.
Barr voted for the bill when he was in Congress and, like Keene, he insists he wants most of the 16 expiring sections renewed. In testimony on Capitol Hill, Barr said his coalition sought modest modifications of the law, such as limiting the length of time and number of targets covered by a roving wiretap.
The White House said it wants all 16 sections renewed. Bush also has supported the idea of allowing FBI agents to obtain certain records without a judge’s signature, though he has never advocated its inclusion in the Patriot Act.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Saturday that administrative subpoenas were already allowed in certain criminal and civil investigations, so the Senate panel’s proposal “would simply allow a long-standing constitutional tool to be used in terrorism investigations.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the attorney general backed administrative subpoenas as “a helpful tool, but the reauthorization of the Patriot Act remains the No. 1 priority.” She added that Gonzales had been committed to “open dialogue, based on facts, explaining to the public that there are no verified civil liberties claims against the Patriot Act.”
Keene, who had recently praised Gonzales for his outreach efforts, said Friday that the administration commitment to openness and review “appears to me to be just spin, a public relations effort, not a real willingness” to consider “whether the new powers government wants to assert are justified.”
Perino said that the White House welcomed the Senate Intelligence Committee’s taking the lead on renewing the Patriot Act but that it had no position on which committee should work on the legislation. Those decisions are determined by Senate rules and procedures, she said.
Keene and Barr’s alliance plans to send letters to Capitol Hill this week calling for rejection of the administrative subpoenas and urging a more careful review of the act itself.
In addition, Barr said, radio ads are being readied for key congressional districts, paid for by Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, a coalition of that includes the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union, gun rights advocates, the Libertarian Party and some left-of-center groups.
Activists also plan to rally next weekend in Harrisburg, Pa., in the home state of Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter.
Specter must decide how his committee will proceed on the legislation. Senate aides said he could choose to try to modify the Intelligence Committee’s proposal or could send a competing package to the Senate floor. Specter has told reporters that the Patriot Act pits “fundamental questions of security of our country with basic constitutional rights.”
The coalition critical of the Patriot Act prefers alternative legislation that limits some of the most controversial measures but does not repeal any of them. That legislation, sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), would limit roving wiretaps and require earlier notification of subjects of “sneak and peak” searches, in which people are not immediately told their property has been searched.