ACLU Says Rare Veto Threat Shows Viability of Patriot Act Fix, Assails Justice Department's Deaf Ear to Bipartisan, Popular Criticism

January 29, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to the White House’s veto threats against the bipartisan Security and Freedom Ensured Act, which would surgically tailor certain overbroad Patriot Act provisions, the American Civil Liberties Union today pointed to the move as proof of the measure’s viability on the Hill and criticized the Department of Justice’s continuing unwillingness to engage its critics in public and even-keeled debate.

“The Attorney General’s attack on the SAFE Act shows how out of step the Bush Administration is with growing national concern over the Patriot Act,” said Anthony Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “Ironically, the veto threat also demonstrates that the SAFE Act is becoming an increasingly viable legislative measure, one that has obviously put the Ashcroft Justice Department on the defensive.”

The SAFE Act – sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig (R-ID), Richard Durbin (D-IL), John Sununu (R-NH) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) – had largely passed under the radar on Capitol Hill until today, when the Department of Justice confirmed in a letter that the President’s senior advisors will urge its veto if it arrives on his desk.

But, because the SAFE Act has broad bipartisan support from key members of Congress, it can go forward in a variety of ways that would make it difficult for the administration to follow through on any veto threat.

While the Justice Department letter highlights several sections of the SAFE Act, which if adopted would narrow the scope of only a select few Patriot Act provisions, it fails to cite evidence that the provisions in question have served any useful purpose in the war against terrorism. Indeed, the letter only makes the statement, which the ACLU characterized as unfounded and hyperbolic, that the SAFE Act would “make it even more difficult to mount an effective anti-terror campaign than it was before the Patriot Act was passed.”

“The Justice Department continues to play the ‘trust us, we’re the government’ game with the American people,” said Charlie Mitchell, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, “even though its aggressive use of the Patriot Act in contexts unrelated to terrorism and a series of internal reports that show a culture of disdain for civil liberties suggest a growing credibility gap.”

Specifically, the SAFE Act would provide for individual suspicion of wrongdoing in Section 215, which allows broad federal access to business, library, medical and other personal records; would increase safeguards against the misuse of “sneak and peek” warrants, which permit an indefinite delay in notice to the person being searched, and would extend sunset clauses to several provisions, requiring their reexamination by Congress in 2005.

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