With several of its key provisions up for renewal next year, activists and officials continue to debate the USA Patriot Act’s effect on First Amendment rights.
Passed in October 2001, the act grants federal investigators new powers to combat terrorism.
Paul McMasters, ombudsman at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said the Patriot Act allows the government to track Web site visits, obtain business records and listen in on conversations between attorneys and clients.
“(Government officials) greatly expand the possibilities Ö that First Amendment activities will be chilled,” he said.
Recent past events, such as when the White House warned citizens to watch what they say and celebrities were ostracized for speaking out against the war in Iraq, have hurt First Amendment rights, McMasters said.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said most concerns are unproven and that the Patriot Act has worked in combating terrorism.
“What Sept. 11 has shown us is that there are folks who would kill and destroy us,” he said.
Coleman said since the act was passed, intelligence agencies have identified and dismantled 36 organizations financing terrorists.
In his January State of the Union address, President George W. Bush urged Congress to renew the act’s provisions within the next year.
“The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule,” he said. “Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens.”
Coleman said he thinks Congress will renew the provisions.
Paul McCabe, FBI private investigator, said the Patriot Act allows law enforcement to communicate possible terrorist threats.
“It makes it much easier to share information,” he said.
Tom Vellenga, international outreach and public affairs programs director at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said this communication is positive. But, he said the act goes too far in allowing enforcement agencies to work without warrants in some situations.
“The Patriot Act hampers our ability to remain the type of democracy we want to be,” Vellenga said.
The secrecy surrounding terrorist investigations is also a concern, he said.
“There’s a great silence in the Justice Department,” he said.
Charles Samuelson, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union director, said there is no oversight for how terrorist investigations are conducted.
“Nobody knows the ramifications and nobody knows how far (the act) will go,” he said. “This thing needs to be thrown out.”
Samuelson said he is concerned about the different relationship the act creates between citizens and the government. He said the government has arrested and held 3,000 people without court justification.
“What used to be a joke about the government is now reality and it’s not so funny anymore,” he said.
But Coleman said these concerns are unsubstantiated because there are no instances supporting them.
“(Government officials) need specific instances other than general complaint,” he said.
Coleman said Congress is sensitive to the civil liberties concern.
“We would lose the war on terrorism if the result of that war is that we all had to give up our rights and liberties,” Coleman said. “Then what would we be fighting for?”