Critics of the USA Patriot Act make much of the fact that the act was introduced and passed, with virtually no debate, in a couple of days, rather than the standard months or even years other bills as sweeping would normally take. This is not only a fair point but an essential one: This major legislation designed to stop terrorism, approved in the heightened concern just after 9-11, likely was not fully understood by Congress, though its passage at the time was understandable.
Since then, with time and public debate substituting for what would have been the normal congressional process of hearings, amendments and reconciliation conferences, opponents across the political spectrum have raised questions about whether the act jeopardizes fundamental civil liberties. With reauthorization of the act approaching, now is an excellent time for Congress to do what it believed it did not have time to do in 2001: Review the act with an eye on whether it needlessly infringes on the freedoms Americans value.
This is the reasonable request of a group of Bangor citizens, who further want the City Council to support a resolve today that affirms the civil rights of residents, reminds police of them and requests that Maine’s congressional delegation monitor effects of the act and work to repeal any portions of it that violate these rights. Bangor would not be the first to pass such a resolve – nearly 300 municipalities have adopted similar resolves raising questions about the act. They include Waterville and Portland, as well as the state of Maine and, for that matter, the Maine Library Association.
The act expands the powers of the government to subject noncitizens to indefinite detention or deportation and enhances its ability to conduct secret searches, including the inspection of various personal records such as medical, financial, business and, now notoriously, reading habits via the local public library. The reason the Justice Department would want these searches to remain secret is obvious enough; the area of doubt is over what formal reassurance the public has that its rights guaranteed by the Constitution will be respected. Secrecy, no matter how necessary, never breeds trust.
This is where Congress comes in. It should want to know, more than two years after approving the act, what the act’s results have been. For instance, in a case last January a federal court ruled that a portion of the act that prohibits giving expert advice to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations was too vague and in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments. The case was brought by groups seeking to provide support for lawful, nonviolent activities on behalf of Kurdish refugees in Turkey. U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said the act “places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature.”
A natural question is why local government would involve itself in what appears to be a federal question. For three reasons. Local government is affected by the act through its police officers, librarians and the courts in Maine. The resolve engages communities in a serious discussion about issues that matter – for all the complaints about a lack of civic involvement by citizens, this is an example of meaningful participation. Third, it works: A resolution from a city, or from several cities, is an effective way to get the attention of Congress.
The council should support this effort, not as a rebuke to the Bush administration or as a conclusion that the Patriot Act is nearly as awful as its worst critics claim. It should support it because of the way the act came about and how it should now be reconsidered.