Congress Should Scrap Flawed Legislation

Posted March 26, 2004 at 12:11pm

A year and a half ago, with the capital and the nation gripped by post-Sept. 11 emotion, Congress passed the single worst piece of legislation I have encountered in more than a decade in the House and the greatest affront to civil liberties since the McCarthy era.

The USA PATRIOT Act (it’s actually a tortuously constructed acronym standing for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct

Terrorism Act) is rife with ironies.

Start with the name. Patriotism means affirming and celebrating the values that have made America strong for more than two centuries. Yet legislation that violates as many as six constitutional amendments has the audacity to call itself the PATRIOT Act.

The PATRIOT Act is the handiwork of the same conservatives who preach small government. But their version of laissez faire applies only when top-bracket tax cuts and corporate welfare are the issue; when it comes to our phone conversations, our Internet activity, our medical records and our library borrowing habits, conservatives want the most intrusive, Big Brother government imaginable.

In the fight to defeat totalitarian extremists, we are adopting extremist, totalitarian tactics. In defense of freedom, we are undermining freedom. As the great theologian and civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin put it, “we may become more concerned with defense than in having things worth defending.”

The PATRIOT Act introduced the concept of “domestic terrorism,” defined so broadly as to include political advocacy organizations and expose them to wiretapping and other forms of harassment. The bill subjects citizens to FBI criminal investigations without probable cause as long as the investigations are for “intelligence purposes.” And as for noncitizens, it empowers authorities to imprison those whom they merely suspect of a crime and in effect deport others for nothing more than exercising free speech.

Academic freedom is also in peril. In my home district, a professor of biology at the College of Marin returned from sabbatical recently to discover that she was the target of an FBI probe simply for discussing bioterrorism and smallpox in the classroom. Authorities even contacted her students to ask if she seemed capable of harming anyone.

Like most Americans, I understand that dangerous times like these may involve some limited and short-term curbs on our freedom. But the PATRIOT Act is not about harmless inconveniences like removing your shoes and being wanded at the airport. The PATRIOT Act is constitutional graffiti. It has vandalized established and cherished American legal principles like presumed innocence, probable cause, trial by jury, due process and attorney-client privilege.

Besides, if you are going to argue for a tilt toward security in the liberty-security balance, perhaps your enhanced security measures should actually make people more secure. But the 9/11 Commission has gathered evidence concluding that, from a purely practical perspective, the expanded PATRIOT Act powers may be entirely superfluous. It wasn’t that law enforcement had insufficient latitude to intercept terrorists. It was lax and improper enforcement of existing authorities that contributed to the Sept. 11 tragedy.

The PATRIOT Act appears little more than an ideological wish list, a long-sought collection of goodies that conservatives had not been able to pass until Sept. 11 became their vehicle.

Although there was only token resistance to the PATRIOT Act in the fall of 2001, now that the bill’s full effect is being felt, Americans are speaking up. Communities around the country have passed ordinances and resolutions calling for restoration of the civil liberties stripped by the PATRIOT Act. And this grassroots opposition is happening not just in liberal communities like my own, but in places such as Sarasota, Fla., and Richmond, Va.

But in their maniacal zeal to create what the American Civil Liberties Union calls a “surveillance society,” the Bush administration and the Justice Department aren’t satisfied with just the PATRIOT Act. They have used — and abused — executive authority to clamp down harder on civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism. For example, federal officials can now eavesdrop on communications between detainees and their attorneys. And they have practically made racial profiling the law of the land by interrogating thousands of Arab and South Asian natives for no other reason than their ethnicity.

And they are lobbying for new legislation, PATRIOT Act II, which would go even further. Just as a bad movie produces a worse sequel, so it is with the PATRIOT Act. Among other egregious provisions, PATRIOT Act II would allow corporations using dangerous chemicals to withhold information about their hazards. This hits especially close to home for those of us who spend time in Washington, D.C., and are appalled by the recent news that the Environmental Protection Agency said and did nothing with the knowledge that the capital’s drinking water was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

The tactics used to pass the PATRIOT Act were as intimidating as the substance of the legislation itself. Attorney General John Ashcroft demanded that Congress approve the bill in three days and barely made himself available for committee testimony about the bill’s specifics. After three days came and went, he implied that Congress would have blood on its hands if there was another terrorist attack while we deliberated.

No wonder, then, that the bill passed so quickly, with such limited debate and overwhelming support. I am proud to say, however, that I was unmoved by the pressure and cast one of only 67 nay votes in the House and Senate combined.

I did so because times of crisis and war demand that we celebrate our nation’s founding doctrines, not waive or pre-empt them. I did so because I believe the Bill of Rights should not be the first casualty of the war on terrorism.

Rep. Lynn Woosley (D-Calif.) is ranking member of the Education and the Workforce subcommittee on education reform.