Political extremes join to oppose PATRIOT Act

Adam Milasincic

An unlikely pair of political advocates has teamed up to place Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, in the crosshairs of controversy over the USA PATRIOT Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union have put aside their usual differences and joined an umbrella group pushing DeWine to support limits on the four-year-old law when it is up for renewal this fall.

“This is really not a partisan issue. It’s an issue of protecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When you have people who are so diverse, it really sends a stronger message to Congress,” said Laura Brinker of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, the national organization uniting liberals and conservatives opposed to the PATRIOT Act.

When the act passed in late 2001, Congress specified that its most controversial provisions would be revisited in four years. On July 21, the House of Representatives reauthorized the bill in a form that closely resembles the current version. One week later, the Senate unanimously passed a more qualified renewal authored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The bills are different enough that PATRIOT Act skeptics have launched a national radio campaign targeting DeWine and fellow lawmakers on the negotiating team that will iron out differences between the House and Senate language as early as next week.

“The difference between how truly awful the House bill is and how ‘gee, that’s bad,’ the Senate bill is big enough you could driver a Hummer through it,” said Jeffrey Gamso, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio.

The debate centers on the three provisions of the PATRIOT Act that have generated the most criticism from civil libertarians. Specifically, the House would extend FBI authority to search library and business records for 10 years, while the Senate would let the practice expire in four years. The Senate also favors a shorter life for “roving wiretaps” that allow investigators to track all of a terrorist suspect’s communications rather than a particular phone line.

Both bills require the FBI Director to personally approve requests for searches of library and bookstore records; the Senate also requires this oversight for firearm and medical databases.

The most stark difference concerns “sneak and peak” searches whereby federal investigators may, in limited circumstances and with court approval, search an individual’s property without notifying them for months after the fact. The Senate legislation allows a delayed notice of up to seven days, while the House bill doesn’t require notice until six months after a search.

As a member of the conference committee charged with reconciling the two bills, DeWine could face intense pressure on two fronts. Although he voted for the original PATRIOT Act, which passed by a margin of 98 to 1 in the wake of Sept. 11, he also backed Specter’s bill in July. Jeff Sadosky, a DeWine spokesman, said the senator favors both the original intent of the PATRIOT Act and the Senate’s attempts to revise it.

“It’s giving tools to law enforcement and the intelligence community that they’ve had for many other crimes,” Sadosky said. “If we’re able to use some of these tools to go after drug traffickers and money launderers, we need to be able to use them to go after people who would do harm to our country.

Despite the high-profile protests from PATRIOT Act opponents, Sadosky said the anti-terrorism measure has widespread support from Ohio voters. Constituent phone calls to DeWine’s office favor renewal of the PATRIOT Act by 2 to 1, he said.

“The senator supports the president on this,” Sadosky said.

President Bush launched his campaign to make the PATRIOT Act permanent with a June 5 speech at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy in Columbus. DeWine joined Bush on stage as the president described his agenda.

“The theory here is straightforward: If we have good tools to fight street crime and fraud, law enforcement should have the same tools to fight terrorism,” Bush said.

His administration strongly favors the House version of reauthorization. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez told the Washington Post on Aug. 29 that portions of the Senate bill “make it more difficult to protect our country.”

The Justice Department has created a public relations Web site to counteract what it calls ACLU “myths” about the PATRIOT Act. The site, lifeandliberty.gov, defends “sneak and peak” searches, citing a 1979 Supreme Court decision that said covert entries are sometimes constitutionally permissible. The site also said searches of library and business records are designed to root out terrorists and are not generally aimed at U.S. citizens.

As a member of the conference committee, DeWine will be forced to address these conflicting views – many of which divide his fellow Republicans. Bush and his allies are one side, but many of the most conservative lawmakers oppose the president’s position. The chairman of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances is former Congressman Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican noted for his role as a hard-hitting prosecutor during the 1999 impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton.

With so many conflicting loyalties and unusual alliances, the fate of the PATRIOT Act remains unclear. That’s why activists on both side of the issue are focusing their attention on DeWine.

“We urge every constituent he has to write to him and say, ‘Senator, we have a problem here and you’re in a position to do something,'” the ACLU’s Gamso said.

Contact news correspondent Adam Milasincic at [email protected].