[ OUR OPINION ]
Patriot Act needs
WHEN President Bush introduced the subject of the USA Patriot Act in last week's State of the Union address by warning that it is due to expire next year, he did a double-take as numerous members of Congress on the Democratic side of the aisle rose in applause. Bush plans to cite his stance against terrorism in this year's election, but his proposal to expand the Patriot Act conflicts with a growing concern that the post-9/11 law infringes on people's constitutional rights. If anything, the law should be trimmed to address those concerns.
A federal judge has struck down a section of the USA Patriot Act as an infringement of the First Amendment.
The 300-page law was enacted weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. As the war on terror looks to attain the longevity of the Cold War, the sacrifices of civil liberties that Americans are asked to make acquire permanence. Government bodies in more than 230 communities, including the Hawaii Legislature and Honolulu's City Council, have raised formal objections to the Patriot Act.
A federal judge in Los Angeles this week struck down part of the Patriot Act that criminalizes giving "expert advice or assistance" to terrorism organizations. Several humanitarian groups sued the government, arguing that the Patriot Act had forced it to curtail writing political material and help organize peace conferences as part of their work with Kurdish refugees in Turkey and Tamil residents of Sri Lanka.
U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins agreed that the anti-terrorism law "places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited, and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature." Thus, she wrote, it could be read as intruding on "unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the First Amendment."
The most controversial part of the Patriot Act is a provision that allows federal authorities to search bookstore and library records to discover a person's reading habits. Attorney General John Ashcroft says that provision has never been used. If that is the case, he should have no objection to its repeal.
The number of convictions for terrorism or where authorities acted to prevent or disrupt terrorist threats rose from 110 in the two years prior to the 2001 terrorist attack to 879 in the two years following. However, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse, only 373 received any jail time and just one -- shoe bomber Richard Reid -- got a life term. Five were sentenced to a minimum of 20 years.
These "terrorism" convictions included five Ku Klux Klan members who burned a cross in the front yard of three black men, a Georgia man who detonated a bomb in his girlfriend's empty car and a Texas convict who tried to arrange the assassination of a federal judge.
These crimes, however repulsive, do not exemplify what most Americans regard as terrorism in today's context. They demonstrate how the government is using the Patriot Act to prosecute cases that have little if anything to do with the ongoing "war."