THE POLITICS OF INSECURITY
President George W. Bush is making an oddly timed push for renewal of the Patriot Act. Since important provisions of the law do not expire until the end of 2005, his real reason for raising the issue last week in his State of the Union address seemed to be political: to create the appearance of being tough on terrorism, which is central to his re-election campaign, while undercutting the chorus of critics, spanning the political spectrum, who are calling the act a threat to civil liberties. Bush had it exactly backward. Rather than rushing to renew the law, Congress should curtail its many serious excesses.
Even Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said the renewal request was "about a year early." He joined an array of Republicans - including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senator Larry Craig of Idaho - and many more Democrats in expressing concern about the act's effect on ordinary Americans.
Bush suggested that the Patriot Act simply gave law enforcement the some kind of powers to go after terrorists that it already has for ordinary criminals. But it actually expands the government's ability to monitor people in important ways. Section 215, which has provoked considerable opposition, allows the FBI to order third parties, like libraries or Internet service providers, to hand over personal records about individuals. Librarians and other record holders can be arrested if they make a request public, or notify the target.
Other sections expand the government's power to conduct secret searches and wiretaps. A clear indication that the Patriot Act has expanded the government's investigative authority is that Bush's own Justice Department found in a study last fall that the act is regularly being used in nonterrorism cases. Defenders of the act say there is little evidence it is being misused. But if individuals' rights are violated, they may have no way to know that.
A federal judge has just struck down, as unconstitutionally vague, the act's ban on giving advice and assistance to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. But the act is not merely constitutionally suspect. There are better ways to make the country safe: Inspect more of the shipping containers coming into U.S. ports, increase security around nuclear and chemical plants, and buy up enriched uranium before it falls into the wrong hands. But the money to do such things is in short supply after the president's tax cuts. Taking away civil liberties may not expand Bush's gaping budget deficit, but its price in lost freedom is more than we can afford.