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State of the State: The Patriot Act sparks dialogue on the balance between security and liberty

Aaron Chambers
WUIS/Illinois Issues

One pre-emptive strike begets another. At least that’s the sequence of events in Evanston, where the city council registered its opposition to one of the federal government’s chief tools in the war against terrorism.

The council passed a resolution in May calling on Congress to repeal the USA Patriot Act and “refrain from passing any further legislation that violates or unduly limits the civil rights and liberties guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

City officials say there was no specific instance of government force that prompted the measure. Rather, they say, the city reacted to citizen concerns about the potential for infringement on their civil liberties.

“The concerns just related to general intrusion into lives and overstepping the constitutional rights of people,” says City Manager Roger Crum.

Lionel Jean-Baptiste, an Evanston alderman and proponent of the resolution, adds, “People felt that all the basic rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution were being threatened by the Patriot Act.”

There are a string of antecedents to the Patriot Act. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 outlawing speech against the government, President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to prevent imprisoned Confederate sympathizers from contesting their detentions in court, criminal restrictions on speech during World War I, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and Cold War-era domestic spying are all instances in which the government assumed or was granted summary powers during a national crisis.

And each instance gave rise to a dialogue on the proper balance between security interests — government powers — and individual liberties. Anti-Patriot Act resolutions, part of a growing tide of resistance, mark the latest round in that debate.

Congress overwhelmingly approved the law a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the U.S. Justice Department defends it as a crucial weapon in the nation’s war on terrorism. 

The law strengthened government surveillance and law enforcement powers, removed barriers against information-sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and added a host of provisions aimed at disrupting financing of terrorism. It gives the government new powers to obtain personal information about U.S. citizens and to detain aliens deemed threats to national security and hold them without acknowledgment to the public. It permits the government to secretly view records of materials checked out of public libraries or bought in bookstores and observe Internet activity on library computers, and forbids librarians or booksellers to talk about any investigations. 

The Justice Department credits the law with minimizing the terrorist threat. But that progress has coincided with a widespread grass-roots concern about government intrusion.

Three states - Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont - and 150 communities in 27 states have approved resolutions protesting the Patriot Act, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Three states — Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont — and 150 communities in 27 states have approved resolutions protesting the Patriot Act, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Two other Illinois cities, Chicago and Oak Park, are considering them. Rep. Julie Hamos, a Democrat whose district includes Evanston, says she is not aware of any effort to pass a statewide resolution.

Such resolutions fall into two categories: those that simply state objections to the Patriot Act or certain sections of the law, and those that prevent local police from engaging in surveillance or other law enforcement activities pursuant to the law and in conjunction with the federal government.

Evanston’s resolution fits into the first category. But Crum says the city did consider versions that would have blocked police from working for the feds.

The resolution notes the Patriot Act “significantly expands the government’s ability to access sensitive medical, mental health, financial and educational records about individuals, lowers the burden of proof required to conduct secret searches and telephone or Internet surveillance, increases federal law enforcement authority to obtain library records and prohibits librarians from informing patrons about monitoring or information requests.”

It concludes that “interpretations and applications” of the law and executive orders associated with the law “may encourage racial and ethnic profiling of both citizens and noncitizens.”

There are other signs of resistance. Public libraries around the country are taking steps to protect the privacy of their patrons. The Skokie Public Library, for example, has posted signs warning patrons that the FBI and other agencies could secretly check records to see what books patrons have checked out or what Internet sites they have visited, and that librarians could say nothing.

Officials at the Schaumburg Township District Library, where similar signs are displayed, are deleting every day the names of patrons who use the Internet so that there are no computer logs for investigators to search.

There also are legal challenges. In late July, the ACLU, which supports anti-Patriot Act resolutions, and several community groups challenged the law’s provisions that allow FBI agents to secretly order librarians to disclose reading lists or other information. The suit is before a Detroit federal court.

A group of civil rights lawyers also has challenged the section that makes it illegal to provide “expert advice and assistance” to groups with alleged links to terrorists. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed the motion in a Los Angeles federal court as part of its ongoing challenge to a 1996 law that makes it a crime to support any group designated as a foreign terrorist organization. 

And in a sign that Congress may be reconsidering its strong support for the Patriot Act, the House in July voted 309-118 in favor of blocking the Justice Department from spending money to implement a provision in the law that permits federal agents to search property without immediately notifying the owner.

The Bush Administration’s support for the Patriot Act is not deterred by these protests, however. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in testi-mony before the House Judiciary Committee in June that certain sections of the law should, in fact, be expanded.

He reminded the committee that “no major attack has occurred on American soil since September 11.” And he took aim at critics of the law, saying the government’s ability to prevent another major attack would be “more difficult, if not impossible” without the law.

Ashcroft said the law should be modified in three ways: so that those who train for and fight with designated terrorist organizations can be charged under “material support” statutes; so that the law consistently provides maximum penalties for acts of terrorism; and so that terrorism offenses are expressly listed among the crimes that trigger pre-trial detention.

This debate over the competing interests of security and liberty will continue, and likely intensify. Indeed, there are aspects of the administration’s efforts that have yet to appear on the radar screen.

For instance, the Justice Department last July authorized a group of Florida police officers to enforce immigration laws in cases involving terrorism and national security. Immigration advocacy groups oppose such powers on the part of local police because, they argue, illegal immigrants will be reluctant to call police in emergency situations for fear of being deported. The Justice Department promised the program would be sensitive to civil rights and that officers would not engage in immigration enforcement that doesn’t involve domestic security or terrorism issues.

And there are still other initiatives under discussion: A panel formed in July by President George W. Bush to study ways to improve the U.S. Postal Service recommended that the service consider developing an electronic system to track all mail for security purposes.

At least for the short term, the pendulum appears to be swinging in favor of security. Still, historically, society has eventually regained balance before democratic principles were lost to government expansion. 

“We could do away with terrorism in the United States and we’d never have to worry about it again,” says Thomas Kneir, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of the FBI. “You wouldn’t want to live here, though. 

We would come into your house every night and check through your stuff. We’d have roadblocks up the street, and we wouldn’t let any commerce come in or out. We could rachet things down. We could do that. But is that necessary?” 


Aaron Chambers can be reached at statehousebureau@aol.com

Illinois Issues,September 2003

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