Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 25, 2005

The Patriot Act debate moves to the Senate this week, while last Thursday’s House vote continues to stand as a testament to what happens to the deliberative process when people get scared. The Senate bill, approved unanimously in committee late last week, remains a significant improvement. Bicameralism rocks.

Lots of opinion writing on Patriot Act over the weekend. A few folks covered Attorney General Gonzales’s remarks on CNN’s Late Edition. Linking renewal of the Patriot Act to London and the Sharm El-Sheik bombing in Egypt, he said he’d be open to cosmetic changes to Section 215, but vowed to oppose anything that would “weaken” the bill. Specifically, he said that libraries cannot become “safe havens” for terrorists.

To be clear, the specific reforms currently on the table would do no such thing. They would absolutely allow federal agents to demand library records, but would require greater particularity and a showing of facts to better guarantee that the records actually pertain to a specific terrorist.

The Salt Lake Tribune begins a scorching editorial with this line: “If it is true that the terrorists of the world hate the United States because of our freedom, then the U.S. House of Representatives has done its part to see to it that the terrorists will hate us a little less.”

Reuters has Michael Gorman, the head of the American Library Association, calling the “library records” provision, “Kafkaesque”: “It’s very reminiscent of the ’50s and the ‘red scare’ where people showed up at libraries trying to find which political books professors had read, because they were going to be put on a communist list or something.”

And, lastly, the AP reported that the Justice Department used Section 213 of the Patriot Act to execute a secret search warrant of the house in Washington State that hid the exit to the now famous and ridiculously long marijuana smuggling tunnel out of Canada.

Irrespective of the wisdom of using a “sneak and peek” warrant in this particular case, it certainly shows how the Patriot Act is about more than just counterterrorism. The sneak and peek provision is one of several in the Patriot Act that expanded surveillance and investigative authorities in regular criminal cases. Though the bill was sold as an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary threat (by al Qaeda, not Canadian marijuana smugglers), many of its controversial provisions are controversial because they implicate far more than just the government’s counterterrorism authority per se.

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