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Patriotic Ax

The USA Patriot Act has friends mostly in high places.

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A day after Attorney General John Ashcroft denounced as "baseless hysteria" contentions that the USA Patriot Act allows the government untrammeled power to investigate people's reading habits, one of his employees, Mary Beth Buchanan, sat down to defend the two-year-old act to a Pittsburgh audience. As U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Buchanan is the region's top federal prosecutor. But at a Sept. 16 public forum on the Patriot Act and civil liberties, she was as often as not on the defensive.

Buchanan contends that the anti-terrorism act passed weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was desperately needed and does virtually nothing to diminish civil liberties. "Prior to the Patriot Act, we didn't have the tools necessary to keep the public safe," Buchanan told an audience of about 250 at Rodef Shalom synagogue, in Oakland. She portrayed the act as a series of benign but useful amendments to pre-existing laws, intended to improve communication between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, give intelligence authorities equal access to tools long used by law enforcement (such as wiretapping), and keep pace with technology (by, for instance, requiring cable companies that provide Internet or phone service to comply with the same requirements for disclosing customer activities as do phone companies and Internet service providers).

But most of Buchanan's fellow panelists, not to mention audience members, were more skeptical -- and not just because Buchanan asserted that "It's extremely difficult to form an opinion about the act without reading it" when critics say that most congresspersons didn't bother to read the 342-page law even before voting on it. Cynthia Richey, director of the Mount Lebanon Public Library, told a post-Patriot Act librarians' joke: "How can you tell when the FBI has been in your library?" Answer: "You can't."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
columnist Dennis Roddy noted that the Constitution has tended to mean what we decide it should mean, especially in times of crisis. And Jules Lobel, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor, blasted the act for allowing the government to detain hundreds of people in secretive custody for long periods of time, often without charging them with any terrorism-related offense.

Vic Walczak
, legal director of the ACLU of Western Pennsylvania, acknowledged that government might sometimes need to acquire people's reading lists, conduct secret searches of their homes or even hold secret trials. But he said the Patriot Act's most worrisome result has been doing away with meaningful judicial review of those acts, such as assessing whether there's probable cause of a crime before acquiring a search warrant. The Patriot Act, he says, "makes judges into rubber stamps."

Walczak noted that the ACLU had sued Ashcroft's Justice Department to learn how many warrants had been issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- which gives the government unprecedented access to personal records and belongings -- but had been "stonewalled." When he asked Buchanan about those numbers on Sept. 16, she responded, "That information is classified for reasons of national security," drawing boos from the otherwise polite crowd. Lobel (whose law students in the 1980s included one Mary Beth Buchanan) said, "That's not an answer, that's a slogan ... the talismanic invocation of 'national security' is supposed to stop all discussion." Buchanan's lone pro-Patriot Act ally on the panel convened by the Allegheny County Library Association and the League of Women Voters was Erin Beckman, a supervisory special agent for the FBI's Pittsburgh Division, who said, "To give away any information could, as in any type of war, give the enemy an edge. ... So we cannot tell the numbers."

On the other hand, while the evening's discussion typically turned on the tension between civil liberties and the need for security, Walczak commended the FBI for working with the ACLU and the local Arab-American population to keep its anti-terror investigations respectful. "The best way to fight terrorism," he said, "is to respect people's constitutional rights."

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