Left and Right vs. the PATRIOT Act

In a political environment more fractious than Washington has seen in over a decade, there are still signs that Left and Right can find common ground.

A current example is a coalition of conservative interest groups that has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and similar organizations to press for changes in the USA PATRIOT Act, which gave law enforcement and security agencies sweeping new powers in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Under the leadership of former Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican from Georgia, the new group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances (PRCB), will work to revise the most extreme provisions of the law – like those allowing federal agents to secretly collect medical and library records and to search peoples’ homes without any notification, a practice known as "sneak and peek."

The coalition includes Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union (ACU), the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Policy Center, the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Eagle Forum, and the Second Amendment Foundation.

On March 28, IPS conducted an e-mail interview with Barr in which he explains why these groups may not be such strange bedfellows, after all.

Q: Traditionally, conservatives have favored a more limited role for government. Is this a factor in the coalition’s thinking?

A: Yes. A core principle on which the conservative philosophy of governing is based is limited government. This principle is important not only when determining the appropriate levels of government spending, regulation, and interference in the economy, for example, but also when deciding if federal criminal laws give the government too much power.

Thus, in assessing the USA PATRIOT Act, many conservatives have determined the law gives the federal government too much power, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, for instance.

Q: At the same time, it seems to many people that the staunchest defenders of civil liberties have not been conservatives, but liberals. Do you think this is true, and if not, why not?

A: At the core, liberals and conservatives alike share an interest in protecting individual liberties, especially those embodied in the Bill of Rights, against government efforts to take them away.

As Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, and a member of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, has said, for many years conservatives assumed that liberals, such as the ACLU, would be the people’s watchdog for civil liberties; and that when these liberties were threatened, we as conservatives could rely on the ACLU to go to court and to the legislature, to protect us.

No longer can conservatives sit back and rely on liberals to protect our rights; we have to be involved, too. Conservatives, like liberals, must become actively enjoined in the fight to protect civil liberties in the wake of the government’s response to the attacks of 9/11. If we do not join together, we will lose the battle.

Q: John Ashcroft made it clear that folks who questioned the PATRIOT Act were aiding and abetting the terrorists What do you think of that position? Do you agree with Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who said Ashcroft will go down in history as America’s worst attorney general? What about Mitchell Palmer?

A: Anyone who takes the position that Americans who stand up and fight to retain our civil liberties, including the right to privacy, and who believe that we as Americans do not need to sacrifice our liberty in order to fight terrorists, are aiding and abetting terrorists, is rendering a disservice to our Founding Fathers, and to Americans through the ages who cherish and fight for our God-given liberties.

PRCB is focusing its efforts on reforming federal laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, that have given the government too much power in the fight against terrorists. We are not engaged in leveling personal attacks against the former attorney general or anyone else.

Q: On the issue of changing or amending the PATRIOT Act, are there things you think the Democrats in Congress are doing wrong, or not doing? Are you getting any support from them in the coalition activity?

A: Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances is a nonpartisan organization. We will work with Democrats and Republicans alike in both Houses of the Congress, to bring balance back to the fight against terrorists. In the last Congress, efforts to bring that balance back to the USA PATRIOT Act, for example, as set forth in the SAFE (Security and Freedom Ensured) Act, enjoyed bipartisan support; and we expect that Democrats and Republicans in both Houses will support our efforts in this 109th Congress, too.

Q: Are you worried that what some see as the Bush administration’s "absolutism" and penchant for excessive secrecy will be an impediment to a healthy national discussion of the Act?

A: For as long as I have been involved in matters involving the federal government – going back to the early 1970s – I have observed that administrations of both major parties seek more secrecy in what they do than the people should consent to. The answer to the question whether the administration’s position favoring secrecy, and viewing the debate over the USA PATRIOT Act as black and white, with no room for amendment, makes our job difficult, is yes.

However, I believe that when all is said and done in this debate this year in which the Congress will address the USA PATRIOT Act, we will witness some compromises by the administration.

Q: About the Act: What keeps you awake at night?

A: The provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that keep me awake at night are those that undermine the basic notions of judicial review of executive branch actions, and which undermine the notion embodied in the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights that the government should not be allowed to gather evidence against a person without at least some reasonable suspicion that the person has violated a law.

If these provisions are allowed to stand and be employed by the government, then the Fourth Amendment will have been rendered essentially meaningless, and with it, the basic notion of privacy in America.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.