ACLU leader on PATRIOT Act
Steve Schell
May/June 2004

Saying the 342-page USA PATRIOT Act takes away fundamental freedoms and undermines the Bill of Rights, American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen spoke in St. Augustine on Saturday, May 8. "People from across the political spectrum are beginning to realize the USA PATRIOT Act went too far by giving the Executive Branch sweeping new powers that are unnecessary to keep us safe,"said Strossen, who has served as President of the ACLU since 1991. "Rather than abandoning our personal freedoms in the name of security, we must remain vigilant in the fight to ensure that our rights are not a casualty of the war on terrorism."

Strossen's talk, entitled, "Individual Rights, the PATRIOT Act, and Other Post-911 Measures," comes as Congress is about to consider the administration's request for additional powers under the USA PATRIOT Act and an extension of powers scheduled to expire soon.

The USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through Congress with no debate in October, 2001, with images of the 9/11 attacks still fresh in everyone's mind. Senator Don Young (R- Alaska) now says that it was "emotional voting. It was stupid. It was the worst piece of legislation we ever passed." The PATRIOT Act would have us believe that the cause of 9/11 was the lack of law enforcement powers, but all evidence now shows that it was the failure of the government to use the powers it already had. In fact, we now know that, on more than one occasion, FBI agents attempted to call attention to suspicious activities by suspects in the 9/11 hijackings, but were rebuked by their superiors.

Some of the most dangerous provisions of the PATRIOT Act include those in Section 215 and 505. Section 215 allows the government to seize all our personal records, including those held by others. Anyone who turns over your records, for example, medical records or bank records, is forbidden from saying anything about it to anyone.

Section 505 allows the government to issue so-called National Security Letters, demanding all records from Internet Service Providers and other businesses -- all without judicial review. Prior to the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act, these letters could be issued only against suspected terrorists. Now they can be issued against anyone. When the ACLU challenged this provision, the government immediately sought, and received, a gag order prohibiting the ACLU's legal team from saying anything to anyone -- including the staff and board of the ACLU -- about the case. After three weeks of negotiating with the government, a compromise was reached allowing a heavily-redacted version of the ACLU's complaint to be made public. Additionally, any time an ACLU staff member or board member wishes to speak to anyone about the case they must first read a memo issued by the ACLU's legal team that specifies what can be said about the case.

Section 802, in defining domestic terrorism, states, in part, "the term 'domestic terrorism' means activities that-
'(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
'(B) appear to be intended-
'(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
'(ii) to influence the policy of a government byintimidation or coercion."

Because of its broad language, many have argued that this definition could apply to environmental or peace organizations.

Strossen said that, in addition to litigation, the ACLU is supporting coalitions around the country that are working to adopt community resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act. As of mid-April, 295 communities in 40 states have passed such resolutions and dozens more are preparing to do so. Five communities in Florida are among those passing resolutions against the USA PATRIOT Act. They are: Alachua County (October 22, 2002), Broward County (May 6, 2003), Sarasota (October 20, 2003), Lee County (November 18, 2003), and Tampa (April 15, 2004). Washington, D.C. and New York City, the two cities hit hard on September 11, have passed similar resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act. Strossen said that the most compelling testimony in favor of the resolutions came from survivors of the World Trade Center disaster.

Lawmakers of all political stripes have finally begun to reconsider controversial portions of the PATRIOTAct. Late last year, Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the bipartisan Security and Freedom Ensured Act (safe) Act of 2003 (S 1709). Representative C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-ID) introduced a companion bill in the house. Otter's bill would effectively prohibit implementation of one of the most controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act, which permitted federal agents to obtain sneak and peek warrants in any criminal case. These warrants allow agents to search homes, confiscate certain types of property and essentially bug computers without notifying the subject of the search that it is happening. If passed, this legislation would represent a significant first step toward rolling back some of the PATRIOT Act's worse excesses by, among other things, placing reasonable limits on "sneak and peek" searches and implementing safeguards for "roving wiretaps" in foreign intelligence investigations. According to Strossen, the Florida delegation voted 18 -- 6 in favor of Otter's provision.

Strossen is the first woman to head the nation's largest and oldest civil liberties organization. Because the ACLU Presidency is a non-paid, volunteer post, Strossen continues in her faculty position as Professor of Law at New York Law School. She has written, lectured and practiced extensively in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties and international human rights. Strossen has been an outspoken critic of the USA PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 measures that share anti-civil liberties characteristics, including provisions that erode checks and balances on federal law enforcement and surveillance powers that threaten the American political system's separation of powers.

For more information on the ACLU's activities in opposition to the PATRIOT ACT, visit The site includes a link to read or download the Act in its entirety.

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