300 Local Governments Slam PATRIOT Act

The tiny Martha’s Vineyard hamlet of Tisbury, Massachusetts, this week became the 300th local or state government to denounce the USA Patriot Act, even as President George W. Bush was campaigning for Congress to make the Act permanent before its expiration next year.

Tinsbury’s voters Tuesday joined New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – the country’s three biggest metropolises among others – in approving a resolution condemning provisions of the Act as threats to basic civil liberties.

The city councils of Pittsburgh and El Paso approved similar resolutions earlier in the week.

As of Thursday, the 300 local and municipal jurisdictions – including the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont – that have passed such measures represent more than 51 million people, or one in every six U.S. residents, according to the Massachusetts-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee which has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups to marshal public opinion against the Act.

Meanwhile, the ACLU disclosed Thursday that it has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a provision in the Act which permits the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI ) to compel Internet service providers to turn over information about their customers or subscribers in counterterrorism or counterintelligence cases without a judge’s approval.

The lawsuit, which was filed April 6 but not made public due to its extraordinary sensitivity until Thursday, challenges the authority given to the FBI under the Act to issue “National Security Letters” (NSLs) that require the recipients – which may include banks, telephone companies, and even libraries – to provide records about their clients. The same provision makes it a crime for the NSL recipients to notify the subjects of the NSL that their records have been turned over.

“As a result of the Patriot Act, the FBI may now use NSLs to obtain sensitive information about innocent individuals who have no connection to espionage or terrorism,” according to the ACLU which has argued that all such requests should be authorized by a court.

The Patriot Act, which was rushed through Congress in October, 2001, has drawn widespread criticism from a range of groups across the US political spectrum.

A survey of 65 criminal justice and legal experts by Thomson Wadsworth (a publishing division of Thomson Learning) released this week found strong disapproval of the Act, with 95 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement, “The USA Patriot Act was passed too quickly and/or without adequate analysis on its impact on other laws and public policy.”

Three quarters of the respondents said they believed that some of the Act’s provisions “violate individual rights” while more than two-thirds agreed that the government had its disposal before the Act’s approval sufficient authority to protect the nation from terrorism.

The 300 local and state jurisdictions that have gone on record against the Act have objected especially to the sweeping powers given to the Justice Department to round up, detain, and summarily deport immigrants without filing charges or providing them with access to attorneys, or, in some cases, even to their family members; the use of racial and ethnic profiling by federal agencies in targeting suspects; and/or the granting of unprecedented powers to the FBI to secretly obtain information with little or no judicial review about individuals.

Of the 25 most populous US cities, 15 – including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Denver, San Jose, Seattle, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. – have approved resolutions urging that the Act be amended or repealed.

Hundreds of other communities and states are currently considering similar resolutions, while the last December, the National League of Cities called for the Act to be amended.

New York’s resolution, approved in February, is among the most far-reaching.

Approved by the City Council, Resolution 60 urges local agencies, the New York Police Department (NYPD) in particular, not to subject New Yorkers to secret detentions without access to counsel, to protect the free-speech rights of individuals, and refrain from enforcing federal immigration laws or engage in racial or ethnic profiling.

The measure, which was approved by voice vote, also calls upon the New York delegation in Congress to “actively work for the repeal of those sections of the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA) and related federal actions that unduly infringe upon fundamental rights and liberties.”

“The city of New York – perhaps more than any city in America – is keenly aware of why we are engaged in a war on terror,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The impact of the City Council’s vote on security is likely to be put to a major test when the Republican National Convention meets in New York Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. Large-scale protests are expected.

Nancy Talanian, director of the Defense Committee, said that the growing grassroots movement against the Act represented a serious challenge to the Bush administration that could affect the upcoming elections. “This movement will play a role in helping people make informed choices in this election year,” she said.

Both Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have insisted that the Act was carefully drafted and do not represent a threat to civil rights or lawful dissent.

(One World)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.