The “Patriot Act” forum


The U.S. Attorney's office had a mini-forum on the “Patriot Act” in Phoenix on Wednesday the 17th. I had wanted to go but was unable to. A very sharp friend, Emily Gaarder, was going down and took notes for me.


I say it was a "mini" forum because it was in a mini setting. The debate about the pros and cons of this act are of constitutional significance, yet the U.S. Attorney's office chose to have it in the middle of a workday in an office that could only hold 100 people. Audience members could submit one written question, in advance. Only some of the questions were answered, and they were paraphrased. Not exactly a way to have a robust give and take on an important topic.


There were several board members including Paul Charlton, chief U.S. attorney for Arizona, and Eleanor Eisenberg, head of the Arizona chapter of the A.C.L.U.


The act's supporters seemed to have two main reasons we should not worry about it. One, that some of the provisions have been in use for years in other contexts, such as drug cases. As if that justifies anything. If it's wrong, such as warrants that don't require showing probable cause, then it's wrong regardless of what kind of crime it's applied to.


Their second argument is, you can trust your government. Really. One of the panel actually objected that those against the act assume "bad faith" on the part of the government in using secretive police powers. A popular saying is just too a propos: "Well, duh". The nation’s founders built a system of government around the idea that any government power that is secret and unchecked is likely to be abused. That's why we have the three branches of government checking one another. That's why a judge has to be convinced the government really has good probability of finding evidence of criminal activity before granting a warrant, and why they can refuse a warrant they think isn't justified.


The Patriot Act stands all that on its head. All the government has to do is declare that an investigation has something to do with terrorism and they don't have to show probable cause – and the judge is not allowed to refuse the warrant. That's just one little detail. Then there are bigger details, like the provision in the proposed additions to the act that would allow the government to arrest someone and never even tell anyone, much less provide due process. Again, all they have to do is declare that it has to do with terrorism and they don't have to provide any due process until charges are brought, and there is no time limit on when they must be brought.


So who can be defined as being involved in a terrorist organization? When Greenpeace runs one of their inflatable boats in front of a whaling boat, or when an anti-abortion group blocks a clinic by chaining themselves across the entrance, that meets the criteria in the act for defining terrorism, and anyone who contributes is involved too. Has that happened yet? Close. A man in Phoenix was accused of supporting terrorism because he gave to a UN-approved Palestinian relief charity a year and a half before it was listed among terrorist support groups (AZ Rep 11/20/02). The founders thought it better to build in the safeguards up front rather than wait for the abuse. I think they had it right.


I don't doubt there are some legal tools that are constitutional that would help law enforcement fight terrorism, and they should have all those tools. But turning to unnecessarily secretive techniques is going in the wrong direction. The ACLU.org web site has a detailed analysis with references to the original documents, which are also available there. The act itself is not that long, if you skip the fluff "sense of Congress" parts. If you're not sure whom to believe, check it out for yourself, and read the newspapers to see what your government is doing. If you have any sense of what the Bill of Rights is for, you won't like some of what you read.


Tom Cantlon’s column appears every other Monday. www.tomcantlon.com