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FBI Dossiers and the Patriot Act

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 18, 2005

Opponents of Patriot Act reform chant a common refrain: “show me the abuse.” This is, of course, a red herring. Because of the inherent secrecy in the law, finding out how the law is being used;let alone abused;is something of a tall order.

Yet, for the abuse naysayers, take note of this story in the Times today revealing an F.B.I. dossier;the size of “War and Peace”;dealing exclusively with the A.C.L.U. As Anthony Romero noted, “What justification could there be, other than political surveillance of lawful First Amendment activities?”

What to take away from this? Political surveillance is the Easy Bake Oven of counter-intelligence. It’s cheap. It’s fun. If you suspect foreign involvement, it doesn’t require a criminal predicate. But, as the Church Commission found, too often it is easier just to focus on banner waving students, wide-eyed activists (on the left and the right) and ACLU staffers than on bona fide subversives.

The Patriot Act broke down checks and balances that kept the F.B.I. and its sister agencies’ all-seeing eye on the ball. It expanded their investigative discretion and neutered accountability. When reauthorizing the expiring provisions in the law, Congress must enact common sense reforms to forestall the next dossier before it gets created.

Oh, and can I see what’s in my file please?

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