Saturday, November 19, 2005

Some Surprising Support

As I noted earlier in the week (scroll down for "Crunch Time..."), this year's version of the Patriot Act is by no means a done deal. Today, in the Washington Post reports that it is unlikely that the Senate will vote on the conference compromise bill this month. The article also contains some rather pleasant surprises.

Efforts to extend a modified version of the USA Patriot Act reached an impasse yesterday when House and Senate negotiators could not agree on whether to renew its key provisions for four years or for seven. Some lawmakers predicted the differences will be resolved next month, before the act expires Dec. 31, but others raised concerns about the delay.

The measure, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, expands law enforcement agencies' ability to secretly gather information on suspects through wiretaps, subpoenas and other means. Some House and Senate members said they fear that the delay will give the bill's critics -- most notably civil liberties groups -- time to mount opposition during the two-week congressional recess that starts Monday.

...more than a dozen senators and House members from both parties announced yesterday that they will oppose the version offered by a House-Senate conference committee, employing a Senate filibuster if necessary.

They received a major boost when they were joined by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill. "The key sticking point, as I see it, is the sunset provision," Specter said. "The House wanted 10 years; the Senate bill provided for four." A seven-year extension would split the difference, he said, but "there ought to be a four-year sunset so we can review it again in a reasonably timely fashion."

...The revised bill also would make changes to national security letters, which investigators have used to demand records from suspects while ordering them to notify no one. The new measure would allow the recipient to contact a lawyer and seek a judicial review. Specter called it "an enormous improvement on the national security letters."

But some civil liberties groups, including one headed by former representative Bob Barr, a conservative from Georgia, disagreed. The new version "gives the appearance of compromise without actually doing anything meaningful to safeguard ordinary Americans' Fourth Amendment right to privacy," Barr said. "Some of these cosmetic changes simply make explicit what the law already requires and other changes in fact represent a setback for civil liberties."

Most troubling, Barr said, "the government would still not be required to provide any evidence connecting an individual to a suspected foreign terrorist before going on a fishing expedition through that individual's sensitive personal records."
[Emphasis added]

A couple of things struck me by the article. The first is obviously the surprise I felt upon learning that not just 'liberals' are concerned about citizens' civil rights. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by Arlen Specter's position. He has, on occasion, been the kind of maverick Republican who can actually see the problems that such legislation will provoke. Still, I am still a little stunned that Bob Barr, whom I have always believed to be slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, has expressed such strong feelings on the issue. Apparently civil libertarians come in all flavors. What a welcome discovery that is.

The second bit of information is that the Republican supporters of the compromised bill are steamed that the votes won't take place before the Thanksgiving break, thereby giving those silly people who care about the Bill of Rights and the other rights guaranteed in the Constitution time to get the word out to the public on just what this act is taking away from them. I hope their fears are confirmed. I also hope that Americans of every political persuasion take that information to their congressional representatives in both Houses and insist on a better bill.


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