Debate Heats Up Over 'Sunsetting' Parts of Patriot Act

"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.

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