The Public Square

Rachael Dietkus of the ACLU on dangerous provisions in the USA Patriot Act


Hi, my name is Rachael Dietkus.

Did you know that the Patriot Act contains more than 150 separate sections outlined in 10 major titles? About a tenth of the law expires or "sunsets" this year unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. The sections I will mention briefly are the most significant provisions that, in the coming weeks, Congress must examine as it deliberates again on the Patriot Act.

Even though many sections raise serious civil liberties concerns, the Patriot Act contained a handful of truly radical expansions of criminal and intelligence search and surveillance authority, only some of which sunset. These changes represent the most dangerous sections of the law.

These provisions also embody the ACLU's broader concern post-9/11 that the White House has demanded and received an unwarranted amount of power, which weakens the checks and balances that maintain our system of limited government and preserve our constitutional liberties.

Congress should use the debate over the sunsets to highlight these provisions in particular, but should also take the opportunity to deliberate more broadly on the state of our freedoms in the so-called "war on terrorism."

Some of the priority sections in the Patriot Act include:

- Section 213, which expands the government's ability to execute criminal search warrants (which need not involve terrorism) and seize property without telling the target for weeks or months.

- Section 215, which allows the FBI to seize a vast array of sensitive personal information and belongings - including medical, library and business records - using secret intelligence tools that do not require individual criminal activity. Although the records can only be seized pursuant to a court order, judges are compelled to issue these orders, making such judicial review nothing more than a rubber stamp.

- Section 505, which lowers the evidentiary standard for "national security letters," or NSLs, which are issued at the sole discretion of the Justice Department, impose a blanket gag order on recipients and are not subject to judicial review. NSLs can be used to seize a wide variety of business and financial records, and in certain instances could be used to access the membership lists of organizations that provide even very limited Internet services (message boards on the ACLU's website for instance).

Congressional review of the Patriot Act and related legal measures in the ongoing effort to combat terrorism is needed to ensure continued public support for the government's efforts to safeguard national security. The controversy over the Patriot Act reflects the concerns of millions of Americans for preserving our fundamental freedoms while safeguarding national security. To date, resolutions in opposition to parts of the Patriot Act and other actions that infringe on fundamental rights have been passed in 372 communities in 43 states including four statewide resolutions. These communities represent approximately 56.2 million people who are calling for reform of the Patriot Act.

Such widespread concern, across ideological lines, reflects the strong belief of Americans that security and liberty need not be competing values. Congress included a "sunset provision" precisely because of the dangers represented by passing such far-reaching changes in American law in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in American history. Now is the time for Congress to complete the work it began when it passed the Patriot Act, by bringing the Patriot Act back in line with the Constitution.

Let's remind Congress in the coming weeks that the sun should set on the PATRIOT Act and rise on our rights! Join members of the Champaign County ACLU and AWARE at the Urbana Free Library on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, at 7:00 pm, as we discuss these important issues surrounding the USA PATRIOT Act.