Second Thought: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Making the U.S. SAFE from the Patriot Act

There’s a new effort in Congress to protect some civil liberties.


If you are among the growing ranks of citizens who are worried about the severe erosion of civil liberties that the Patriot Act has accomplished in the last two years, good news: There is now an act in Congress, already approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives, that would curb some of the excesses of that act.

The bill, called the SAFE Act (Security and Freedom Enhanced Act), is now before the Senate as part of a Justice Department appropriations measure and is supported by a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators. It doesn’t repeal any section of the USA Patriot Act, but it would amend that law to bring some of its controversial provisions back into line with the U.S. Constitution, and restore much-needed checks and balances.

To help turn this proposal into law, we are asking that voters call Texas’ U.S. Senators — John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison — and ask them to co-sponsor the SAFE Act.

Generally speaking, the SAFE Act would increase the judicial oversight of the FBI in using the Patriot Act. The SAFE Act would protect the privacy of personal and business records maintained by universities, doctors, banks, libraries, travel agents, and employers. The bill would prevent the government from making “fishing expeditions” into these records, unless evidence was presented that the person or group being investigated had improper ties to a foreign government or terrorist organization. The act also sets reasonable limits on the controversial “sneak and peek” powers that allow federal agents to search homes, computers, and offices without notifying the owners. The new act would allow those secret searches under much narrower conditions and would require the subject of the searches to be informed much earlier. Congress and the public would also have to be told how often those kinds of searches were being done.

Under the USA Patriot Act, the FBI is allowed to obtain warrants for “roving” wiretaps in foreign intelligence investigations, without giving the name of the person being investigated or specifically listing the computer or telephone to be tapped. To obtain warrants for roving wiretaps in criminal cases, federal agents must “ascertain” that the target is actually the person using the device to be tapped. The SAFE Act would extend that reasonable safeguard to foreign intelligence investigations, requiring agents to either provide the name of the person or the specific device to be tapped, thus helping to ensure the government does not eavesdrop on the conversations of innocent people.

The bill also deals with the expanded authority given to the Justice Department under the Patriot Act to seize personal information through “national security letters” that are essentially subpoenas issued by the U.S. Attorney General rather than by a judge. There is a special exemption for libraries to ensure that our reading habits are not being arbitrarily monitored. Finally, the Safe Act expands the sunset provisions, to ensure that the Patriot Act would expire after a specified time period.

While the SAFE Act is being debated in Congress, almost 300 communities have passed pro-civil liberties, anti-Patriot Act resolutions. The list includes the City of Chicago. One group has approached the City of Arlington about adopting an anti-Patriot Act resolution and may take that effort to other local governments. As Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU legislative office in Washington, warned, “This isn’t an abstract, academic debate — it’s about how our Constitution and Bill of Rights provide ground rules for every American to enjoy freedom and safety in equal measure.”

Whether you think the Patriot Act represents a chilling removal of civil liberties or a prudent anti-terrorism measure, you can learn more about it at the First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church’s educational forum at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4. The church, at 1959 Sandy Lane in east Fort Worth, is co-sponsoring the forum with the Greater Fort Worth ACLU and the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County. Panelists will provide historical information and a Muslim’s perspective on the act. A representative from Homeland Security has been invited, and the panel will answer questions from the audience.

Reed K. Bilz is president of the Greater Fort Worth Civil Liberties Union.

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