Partisans over liberties

Everything appeared on track last week for Congress to pass a much-needed amendment to the USA Patriot Act that would have barred law enforcement from unnecessary snooping into private library and bookstore records as a tool in their hunt for terrorists.

But things went off track because of election-year coercion. At the last minute—thanks to a veto threat from President George W. Bush and a massive, last-minute application of pressure from Republican leaders—the House narrowly defeated the effort. Basically, 10 Republicans who initially were going to vote in support were persuaded to switch their votes after questionable delaying tactics.

What an awful shame.

The bipartisan move to modestly alter the 3-year-old Patriot Act was as reasonable and righteous an effort as they come. The Patriot Act—hastily adopted in the panic-stricken months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon—broadens the reach of law enforcement to use the government’s power to detain suspects and conduct investigations. Among other things, the act requires libraries, booksellers and others to release information about reading habits of people the feds may suspect of crimes. Before the act, law enforcement actually had to show evidence—probable cause—if they wanted to obtain far-reaching search warrants or subpoenas that could someday dramatically, and adversely, alter citizens’ lives. A provision of the law even prevents people from telling anyone if a warrant has been served and thus makes it impossible for librarians to report how frequently records are being searched.

It seems so obvious that the government shouldn’t be allowed to indiscriminately review records that indicate what citizens in a free society are reading. It’s an uncalled-for invasion of privacy.

But not to Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and House Republican leadership. They delayed the vote and put the pressure on, and the bipartisan effort went down in flames in the name of lock-step loyalty to party and the so-called war on terror.

Too bad, because the effort to amend the Patriot Act had wide, bipartisan support among citizens. The amendment had the backing of people like the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association and the PEN American Center, an organization of writers. Additionally, hundreds of cities and communities across the nation had passed resolutions to oppose the Patriot Act, especially the reading-privacy aspect. Last November, the Sacramento City Council joined hundreds of cities and communities across the country when it voted to support curbing the Patriot Act where it overstepped. The movement to pass such resolutions was supported by an even broader bipartisan mix of organizations that spanned the spectrum from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the Gun Owners of America.

As the ACLU says, we can be both safe and free. The Constitution and Bill of Rights limited government powers for a reason. These inspired documents of democracy put checks and balances in place to curb the excesses of an over-zealous government. Last week’s ignominious display on the House floor did the opposite.