Key Bipartisan Fix-PATRIOT Act Bill Introduced in Senate; ACLU Endorses Measure, Says it Restores Needed Checks and Balances

October 15, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – A new bill unveiled today at a news conference held by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois is a major step in the fight to restore checks on federal domestic spying powers, the American Civil Liberties Union said. The bill would narrow several controversial sections of the USA PATRIOT Act and is garnering bipartisan support.

“”The Craig-Durbin 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 ideals of check and balances against overreaching government authority.””

At a news conference held today, Murphy was joined by Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office, Steve Lilienthal of Free Congress Foundation and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, in voicing support for the Craig-Durbin “”Safety and Freedom Ensured”” (SAFE) Act. Senators John Sununu (R-NH) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), co-sponsors of the bill, also attended the news conference.

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 Craig-Durbin bill 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.

The Craig-Durbin bill also deals with expanded Justice Department authority to seize some personal information about Americans through national security letters, which are essentially subpoenas issued at the sole discretion of the Attorney General. While maintaining the authority, it provides a special exemption for libraries to ensure that Americans’ reading habits are not being arbitrarily monitored.

Either this year’s Commerce, Justice and State funding bill or an omnibus spending measure could become the vehicle for the Craig-Durbin bill, which is expected to find 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 to almost 200 and several months after Idaho Republican Rep. C.L. Otter saw his amendment defunding sneak and peek searches in 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.

A sign-on letter urging support for S. 1709, the Security and Freedom Enhanced (SAFE) Act of 2003 can be found at:

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