Key Bipartisan Fix-PATRIOT Act Bill Introduced in House; ACLU Endorses Measure, Notes Broad Support

October 23, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Following on the heels of its introduction in the Senate, the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act of 2003, a measure to narrow the sweeping surveillance and law enforcement powers in the USA PATRIOT Act, was introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives. Reflecting its broad, cross-ideological support, the measure features the sponsorship of conservative Idaho Republican, Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, as well as fellow Republican and Judiciary Committee member Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

“The SAFE Act is the culmination of months of growing pressure on the Hill to rollback the most excessive sections of the PATRIOT Act,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “That the bill could garner strong support from both sides of the aisle shows just how far the government has strayed from the American ideal of check and balances against overreaching government authority.”

Joining Reps. Otter and Flake on the bill are fellow Republican Representatives Mike Simpson (ID), Ron Paul (TX) as well as Democrats Barney Frank (MA), John Conyers (MI), Dennis Kucinich (OH), Tom Udall (NM) and Gregory Meeks (NY). The bill’s Senate counterpart also enjoys support from across the aisle with Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Larry Craig (R-ID) as primary sponsors. Sens. John Sununu (R-NH) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) are also strong supporters of the Senate bill.

At a news conference last week, the ACLU’s Murphy was joined by a diverse sampling of organizations in support of the Senate measure, including the American Library Association, the Free Congress Foundation and the American Conservative Union, the nation’s oldest conservative organization.

Since the USA PATRIOT Act’s passage two years ago this month, pressure from all points on the political spectrum has been building in Congress for fixes to several controversial provisions. The SAFE Act permanently narrows the hot-button “sneak and peek” provision in the bill, which allows federal agents to search Americans’ homes without notifying them for an indeterminate period.

It also addresses arguably the most controversial provision in the bill, Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain Americans’ medical, business, library and even genetic records without probable cause. Specifically, the bill would preclude investigative fishing expeditions by requiring some individualized suspicion that the targets of the order have some connection to a foreign government or organization.

Finally, the House version of the SAFE Act addresses goes one step further than the Senate version by addressing the PATRIOT Act’s overbroad and vague definition of “domestic terrorism.” The Otter-Flake SAFE Act would replace that definition – which could cover some acts of civil disobedience by protest groups – with a narrower definition linked to more serious federal crimes of terrorism, such as bombing, kidnapping, hijacking and the like.

Either this year’s Commerce, Justice and State funding bill or an omnibus spending measure could become the vehicle for the SAFE Act, which is finding traction on the Hill. The bill’s introduction comes as the communities passing pro-civil liberties, anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions – which now includes Chicago — has climbed in number above 200 and several months after Rep. Otter saw another amendment he sponsored, which would defund sneak and peek searches under the PATRIOT Act, pass by an overwhelming majority in the House.

“This isn’t an abstract, academic debate – it’s about how our Constitution and Bill of Rights provide ground rules for every American to enjoy freedom and safety in equal measure,” Murphy added.

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