Debate Heats Up Over 'Sunsetting' Parts of Patriot Act

Talat Hamdani wears her feelings about the need to keep America safe from terrorism on her chest -- in a pin bearing a photograph of her son looking proud in his New York City police cadet's uniform.

Mohammed Salman Hamdani disappeared on Sept. 11, 2001, and -- even though he was a part-time EMT and training to be a police officer -- there soon were media reports that he was being investigated for suspected involvement in the attacks.

Hamdani, who said she and her husband came to America from Pakistan in 1979 "in search of the American dream," tried for months to get information about whether her son was dead or alive, if he was in custody or had even possibly gone into hiding.

Finally, in March 2002 she was told that his remains had been identified at Ground Zero, and in April he was given a hero's funeral by the city.

A Son Who Became Part of the Patriot Act

What Hamdani did not know was that just 45 days after Sept. 11, her son's bravery had been written into controversial legislation passed by Congress.

The final text of the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping legislation presented by the Bush administration as necessary measures to keep America safe from future terrorist attacks, referred to her son in the first few pages -- not as a suspected terrorist, but as an example of why it was wrong to look at all Muslims as terrorists.

"Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing," reads Section 102 of the legislation.

Almost four years after losing her son, Hamdani remembers the accusations against him, and now she is speaking out against the legislation that contains his name.

"The reason he was accused of being a terrorist is that his first name is Mohammed," she said at a recent meeting in New York City organized by civil liberties groups. Participants planned activities designed to convince Congress not to renew sections of the Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year, and to toss out other sections of the sweeping law. The gathering was one of dozens held around the country as civil liberties groups gear up to push Congress over the act.

"I know this subject from both sides," Hamdani, a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said at the meeting, which was held at the offices of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, just blocks away from Ground Zero. "I know the fear of the American people that this was done by Muslims, but not every Muslim is a terrorist."

Hamdani said she feels the Patriot Act has been used against Muslims in the United States, but other opponents of the measure say it affects every American.

The concerns of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, the ACLU and other civil liberties groups across the political spectrum mostly have to do with the way the Patriot Act strengthens the powers of the executive branch, allows law enforcement to act with greater secrecy and fewer judicial restraints, and vaguely defines some of its terms, such as what is meant by domestic terrorist threats.

"This is a battle for the soul of our country," said Udi Ofer, director of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign. "This is a battle for the soul values of our country that we all believe in. What's at stake here, what we're talking about, are our fundamental rights and freedoms."

'Sunset' Clauses at Issue

Lawmakers are expected to take up the Patriot Act either before Congress's summer recess in August, or soon after they reconvene in September.

Some groups pressuring Congress already have helped convince more than 400 legislative bodies -- including seven state legislatures -- to pass resolutions ranging from criticism and concern about the potential for violation of civil liberties, to directives to local police and other officials to not cooperate with federal terrorism investigations they believe violate civil rights.

Among the more than 70 people who attended the New York meeting was a young man who laughingly described himself as a "paranoid teenager," middle-aged women who said they had been activists in the 1960s, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, and even a woman who said she was a "conservative Republican."

Congress already has begun considering the issue, and the House voted 238-187 last week to toss out one of the most controversial sections, Section 215, which grants the FBI the power to seize a broad range of personal information -- including an individual's library, bookstore and health records -- without having to prove probable cause the person was involved in criminal activity, the traditional standard for a search warrant.

Section 215 is one of about a dozen of the "sunset clauses" that civil liberties groups say should be allowed to expire at the end of the year.

The ACLU also opposes another dozen sections that are not due to "sunset," though Ofer said his group does support some Patriot Act provisions, such as increased funding to hire and train FBI translators and expedited payments to first responders.

Among the sections Ofer opposes is Section 218, which was used in the investigation and arrest of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland, Ore., lawyer accused of involvement in the Madrid train bombings of March 2004. Mayfield was held for two weeks as a material witness, before it was determined that he had been misidentified.

Ofer says the incident is an example of why Congress needs to take another look at the Patriot Act, even though it was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

340 Pages Is Just the Beginning...

A long-standing concern is whether, given the size and complexity of the Patriot Act and its rapid passage from introduction to enactment, anyone in Congress really understood the 340-page law.

Congress was debating the Patriot Act at a time when the country was still in shock at the attacks of Sept. 11, and was facing a new scare in a number of anthrax-contaminated letters sent to members of Congress and to several media outlets (including ABC News).

A sense of urgency about national security resulted in minimal debate over the law's provisions, say critics.

"The Patriot Act set a tone, a tone that has carried on to this day, that is government secrecy," Ofer said. The message that was being sent by the Bush administration was, "You need to trust us," he said.

Officials Say Patriot Act Concerns Are Unfounded

President Bush, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his successor Alberto Gonzales and federal law enforcement officials have defended the Patriot Act, saying concerns about supposed threats to civil liberties are unfounded, and arguing that the powers it provides law enforcement are necessary to keep the country safe.

"Since September the 11, federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted," Bush told a group of Ohio police during a recent speech in defense of the Patriot Act.

The Washington Post disputed the president's numbers, though, reporting that an examination of federal court records found just 39 people who have been convicted on terrorism charges since the Sept. 11 attacks. Another approximately 180 people whose convictions were classified as terrorism convictions were actually convicted on lesser charges, the paper said.

There also has been question about how often some of the powers given to law enforcement have been used, which civil liberties groups say is troubling because of the secrecy built into many of the Patriot Act's sections.

Gonzales, for example, said that federal authorities have yet to use Section 215 to investigate anyone's reading habits, but Ashcroft once told a congressional committee the section had been used dozens of times.

A recent study commissioned by the American Library Association found federal, state or local law enforcement had made at least 137 legally executed requests for information on individuals' book-borrowing habits from public and academic libraries since the Patriot Act was passed.

"We now know with certainty that law enforcement is visiting libraries and asking for information on library patrons," Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA Washington Office, said in a statement announcing the results of the study. "We must ensure that the proper oversight is in place to ensure that the government doesn't conduct 'fishing expeditions' at America's libraries."

Hamdani, who said she felt her family had "just about" achieved the American dream before her son was killed at the World Trade Center, said she is optimistic that the changes she believes are needed in the Patriot Act will be made.

"There are amendments being introduced to rectify it," she said. "This is a land of freedom, of opportunity."

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