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Patriot Act Update--Fighting Terror, But At What Cost?

As mentioned in the previous post on the Patriot Act, a number of provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on December 31, 2005.  A conference report  (hat tip: Volokh Conspiracy) was recently submitted by Senate and House negotiators in an attempt to extend the provisions that are set to expire. Earlier in the week there were reports of an agreement having been reached by the GOP and the White House, but there has been much resistance to the compromise by opponents to the Act in the Senate, although it appears set to pass in the House. 

On Monday, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced an alternative bill that would extend the current act for three months rather than renew the provisions at issue, while the GOP Senators are now considering a compromise to renew the current Act for one year, as opposed to the four year time frame initially suggested.

In my opinion, the concerns regarding the Act and the provisions at issue are valid.  I believe that our government is overstepping the boundaries of the Constitution on a number of fronts in its continuing effort to battle terrorism, with the Patriot Act leading the way. 

In an article from news.com, Declan McCullagh outlines a number of proposed changes set forth in the conference report that are seemingly irrelevant to the Act's purported purpose, which is to  "deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes."  According to McCallagh, the conference report:

• Reduces the amount of contraband cigarettes that qualifies as a federal crime. The number drops from 60,000 cigarettes to 10,000.

• Creates a new federal crime of photographing or videotaping bridges, garages, tracks, warehouses, or other facilities used by railroads, boats, or airplanes--if such recordings were made with the intent of doing harm. Anyone attacking anyone else near such facilities with a weapon--the list includes "a pocket knife with a blade of less than 2 1⁄2 inches in length and a box cutter"--can be punished with stiff prison terms and even the death penalty.

• Increases electronic surveillance of visitors and tourists by ditching a requirement that a surveillance target must be an agent of a "foreign power." Extends electronic monitoring of visitors' and tourists' Internet activities and telephone dialing habits from 90 days to one year.

• Boosts criminal penalties: Possessing methamphetamine for distribution to a minor yields a prison term of up to 20 years. Requires a "feasibility study" of a new federal drug court, and funds mandatory drug testing. • Increases criminal penalties for smuggling goods into the U.S. from five years to 20 years, and creates an additional crime of exporting them.

• Expands what information the FBI can obtain using a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order asking for telephone or Internet activity. It stresses that the recipient must divulge "any temporarily assigned network address or associated routing or transmission information."

I am opposed to the proposed amendments to the Patriot Act and don't think that the provisions at issue should be extended, especially in light of recent reports of increasingly intrusive governmental activities on the home front performed under the guise of fighting terrorism.  For example, a recent article, MSNBC reported  that the Pentagon is amassing information on citizens in a database, as it tracks the activities of "suspicious" groups.  The Village Voice also recently reported on an NYPD Order which allows the police to "use cameras to make training tapes or analyze police procedures, as well as 'when a reasonable belief exists that unlawful activity, terrorist activity, or arrest activity will occur.'" 

I fear that we are allowing our government to chip away at our Constitutional rights in an effort to fight a battle that cannot be won.  If the sunset provisions of the Patriot Act are extended for another four years, I don't believe that we'll be any less likely to experience a terrorist attack than we were on September 10, 2001, but we'll be far more likely to experience governmental intrusions into our private lives.

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