Friday, July 09, 2004

Attempt to weaken Patriot Act unsuccessful

A proposal by Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders to water down the controversial Patriot Act failed to pass by a single vote in the House of Representatives today. The proposal would have barred the federal government (specifically, the Justice Department) from demanding records and reading lists from libraries and bookstores without showing probable cause.

From the New York Times article:
The vote, a 210 to 210 deadlock, amounted to a referendum on the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act and reflected deep divisions in Congress over whether the law undercuts civil liberties. Under House rules, the tie vote meant the measure was defeated.

Federal law enforcement officials say the power to gain access to such records has been used sparingly. Still, the provision granting the government that power has become the most widely attacked element of the law, galvanizing opposition in more than 330 communities that have expressed concern about government abuse. Critics say the law gives the government the ability to pry into people's personal reading habits.

"People are waking up to the fact that the government can walk into their libraries, without probable cause, without any particular information that someone was associated with terrorism, and monitor their reading habits," Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who sponsored the measure, said in an interview.
... [T]he Justice Department on Thursday sent a letter saying that at least twice in recent months "a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with Al Qaeda used Internet services provided by a public library."
Last September, Attorney General John Ashcroft accused critics of the government's library powers of fueling "baseless hysteria," and he grudgingly declassified government data showing that the Justice Department had not yet used the power to seize library records.

But the department has refused to say how often the authority has been used since, saying the information remains classified. The American Civil Liberties Union said last month that documents disclosed in court challenges showed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had sought to use that section of the law soon after Mr. Ashcroft's declaration.
The Washington Post article provides some more information.

At one point, the proposal seemed sure to pass, with the tally reading 219 in favour to 201 against. But the vote, scheduled to last for 15 minutes, was extended by Republicans to 38 minutes as they desparately tried to persuade defectors from their ranks to support the bill. Their efforts were successful; 9 representatives (8 Republicans and 1 Democrat) changed their votes to ensure the tie.

Of course, there's no point expecting logic from Ashcroft, but this is even worse than usual. I'm sure 'members of terrorist groups closely affiliated with Al Qaeda' used the U.S. postal system or public transport. Is the government going to demand records be kept on all letters/parcels and taxicab customers? Would you approve of the government scrutinising your reading habits or keeping tabs on who you write to? And using the argument that the government had not examined such records prior to last September (though it has since then) is ridiculous. The frequency with which a law may be applied should have nothing to do with whether it is passed.

The admininstration will, I'm sure, hail this as a 'victory in the war on terror'. It's a shameful defeat in the war for freedom.

Meanwhile, I hope the Indian Government keeps their promise to repeal POTA, and soon.

UPDATE: Slashdot (slightly late, as usual) has a discussion going. My favourite part is this quote from Thomas Jefferson: "I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy?"

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