and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
March  2004 #3

Alert citizenry is the best antidote
to potential Patriot Act abuses
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 18, 2004

So there I was at the Swampscott and Marblehead League of Woman Voters forum last week, hoping to make up my mind about the USA Patriot Act and share my opinion with you.

I began with contradictory prejudices - a certain fondness for the Bill of Rights, based on my innate passion for freedom; and a fear of terrorists, not so much for myself, but for my family.

I also had bad memories of one-sided LWV forums on Prop 2 and a habit of thinking that the organization is always wrong. Its longstanding opposition to my Second Amendment right to bear arms, with which I could possibly defend myself against either terrorists or the federal government should it become dangerous to civil liberties, made me doubt its concern that "basic civil liberties must be preserved."

However, it made an effort at a balanced forum, though the local panelists - librarians, a minister and a selectman - were mostly opposed for reasons that seemed vague. I can quote Benjamin Franklin, too, and quite agree that "they that yield essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

But I really needed to know exactly what we were giving up with the Patriot Act in return for avoiding another terrorist attack.

The young woman who was invited to explain the act was reassuring and specific. Kim West is an assistant U.S. attorney with the Anti-Terrorism Unit. She told us that the new law updated investigative techniques already used by domestic law enforcement, and allowed sharing of information between criminal and intelligence agencies, which previously couldn't speak if they were watching the same person. She was right out of central casting for CBS' "Threat Matrix," a series in which valiant government agents battle terrorism.

Ms. West reminded us that the USA Patriot Act is an acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." Who could be opposed to that?

Unfortunately for a full understanding of the issue, the answer to that question was professor Michael Avery, president of the National Lawyers Guild, who has written a treatise on police misconduct. He insisted that "the Bush-Ashcroft Act" (why not the "Bush-Ashcroft-Kennedy-Kerry Act?" Leading Democrats voted for it too) is a "right-wing conservative" plot, and that "the conservative right has been trying to get its hands on the Bill of Rights."

This would come as a surprise to the Patriot Act's right-wing conservative opponents like Phyllis Schlafly.

I assure you, professor, that no one is more paranoid about government power than right-wingers, not to mention Libertarians, whose national party has urged repeal. My partner, Chip Ford, actually joined the ACLU for a while because of its strong opposition to the act.

In contrast to Professor Avery, Ms. West was calm and rational. She was not there as an advocate, but apparently to counter misinformation. She credited the act for the fact that "nothing else has happened here since 9-11," and stated that our strongest protection against abuse of the law is public attention and concern. So she seemed to approve of the citizen groups who are asking questions and told the audience, when it questioned her, that there were some changes that she thought should be made.

This fit what I had been thinking when my only reference was "Threat Matrix" and other law enforcement shows. I'd naturally be cheering for the heroes who were preventing the terrorist attacks with minutes to spare, but would still find myself exclaiming, "They can't do that!" just before an actor cited the Patriot Act as the reason they can. They can hold an American citizen for how long without a lawyer and without charges? Since when?

Apparently, since the Patriot Act was passed very quickly in the emotional aftermath of 9-11, without a public hearing, before anyone had a chance to study the bill, nevermind to determine intended or unintended consequences. I hate it when that happens on Beacon Hill; it's a lot worse when our civil liberties are at stake.

The person I wish had been on the platform with Ms. West is noted civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate, so I e-mailed him to ask what he thought of the Patriot Act. He responded that while "some of its provisions are perfectly reasonable ... others are off the wall. ... It is a witches' brew of the OK and the terrible."

If there have been no serious abuses yet, it is because we are watching. With people I trust, and people I don't, on both sides of this issue, all I can do is agree with Ms. West's recommendation that citizens read the Patriot Act itself and become involved. This means having a full public debate between now and when it comes up for renewal in 2005. We must also keep working on related issues like immigration policy and foolish political correctness, which prevents the profiling people most likely to be dangerous.

When in doubt, I, too, reach for the vague concept. Modern U.S. patriots must quote not only Ben Franklin, but Thomas Jefferson, who warned us long ago that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.