ACLU Opposes Ashcroft Government Surveillance Bill; Says Proposal Threatens Freedom Without Ensuring Safety

March 4, 2003

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WASHINGTON - Responding to Attorney General John Ashcroft's appearance at a Senate hearing this morning, the American Civil Liberties Union today reiterated its call on Congress to resist passage of the proposed government surveillance bill known as PATRIOT II. 

"Our nation is poised on the brink of a dangerous new anti-civil liberties era, and these escalating bids for expanded government power demand close scrutiny," said Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, who traveled from the group's headquarters in New York to sit in on today's hearing. "As the people's representative, Congress must ask Mr. Ashcroft the tough questions about his actions and policies that undermine the fundamental values of our democracy." 

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), convened the hearing. While no groups or individuals were asked to testify, the ACLU's Romero attended in order to hear first-hand the Administration's justifications for its programs to spy on Americans. He cited PATRIOT II and the CAPPS II program, the traveler surveillance system that became the subject of debate last week after Delta Airlines announced it would begin testing the system.

"The uproar about the new airline passenger blacklist known as CAPPS II highlights the distaste Americans have for government spying," Romero said. "CAPPS II threatens our liberty, but its security benefits are far from clear. Like the hastily enacted USA PATRIOT Act, this program fails to increase safety as it limits our core freedoms."

PATRIOT II, Romero said, is indicative of the prevailing disregard for fundamental civil liberties and privacy rights both at the Department of Justice and in the Bush Administration. The larger implications of the bill, the ACLU said, include a severe diminishment of basic checks and balances on the power of the executive branch and a continuing love affair with untested and likely ineffective security measures that infringe on basic liberties -- especially personal privacy and the freedoms of speech, association and religion.

Both PATRIOT II and CAPPS II are so unpopular that they have drawn the ire of many right-leaning advocates and media personalities. Last month, "card-carrying conservative" columnist William Safire called the PATRIOT II proposal an "abomination," and warned, "Justice's aim is to avoid judicial or Congressional control."

"Congress must not accept new legislation that threatens our constitutional rights in the name of security against terrorism," Romero said. "In fact, Congress should not only reject any new legislation, but it should instead insist that the Bush Administration stop stonewalling and outline how the new powers already given under the first USA PATRIOT Act have been used." 

For more information on PATRIOT II and other government surveillance programs, go to www.aclu.org/safeandfree

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