Patriot critics aren't helping

Last Friday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) abruptly ended and then left a hearing called to focus on reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act when witness after witness ignored that focus to attack the Bush administration on immigration, the way the prison at Guantanamo is being run and U.S. treatment of enemy noncombatants and prisoners of war.

Last Friday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) abruptly ended and then left a hearing called to focus on reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act when witness after witness ignored that focus to attack the Bush administration on immigration, the way the prison at Guantanamo is being run and U.S. treatment of enemy noncombatants and prisoners of war.

As the hearings droned on, Sensenbrenner became more and more exasperated with witnesses who seemed unwilling or unable to examine Patriot Act provisions that are due to sunset this fall. Instead, critics of the administration joined Judiciary Committee Democrats to lambaste the administration for the benefit of the audience, attending reporters and those watching the hearings on C-SPAN.

One wonders where people such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) get the information that goes into their speeches. Lee attacked the Patriot Act on the grounds that it authorized “armed vigilantes” styling themselves as “Minutemen” to mass at our southern border and keep Mexicans from entering our country. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the legislation knows that the lawmaker had no idea what she was talking about since the Patriot Act has nothing to do with how the military treats prisoners or virtually any of the other purported outrages that were the focus of the witnesses.

Conservatives and liberals alike have been critical of some aspects of the Patriot Act, and they, like the Judiciary Committee and Congress, should have been outraged at the way these witnesses’ hyperbole and outright misrepresentation of what the act does and doesn’t do trivialized legitimate concerns and turned what could have been an important hearing into a travesty. They, in their irresponsibility, may have, in fact, made it more difficult to win committee support for reforms that would do much to safeguard the very values they claim to champion.

Sensenbrenner can be prickly, but he is a straight shooter. Last year he resisted administration pressure to reauthorize the act before the sunsets kicked in and promised to take a close look at administration claims for the law as well as the provisions that have been subject to the most criticism.

Neither side can take much pride in the way the argument has progressed. The administration through Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has tried to seduce critics without either budging on the provisions they seek to reform or being straightforward in its requests for even more power. To suggest that the attorney general has been less than sincere in his dealings with even the friendliest of critics would, in fact, be an understatement.

But many of those who purportedly seek reform have been worse. They have made claims that cannot be substantiated and don’t seem to know what the act does and doesn’t cover. They are an embarrassment to those who believe liberty and security are not antagonistic or competing values — who share my belief that most of the Patriot Act is worthwhile and necessary but can be improved in a way that will make it less likely to mutate someday into a weapon to be used against non-terrorist, law-abiding Americans.

One can only hope that Sensenbrenner and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), will see past both the desire of the federal law-enforcement bureaucracy to grab as much power as possible and the self-serving extravagance of those who would use problems within the hastily passed legislation to beat the administration over the head. The Patriot Act should be reauthorized, but not blindly or in reaction to those who neither understand its implications nor want to discuss meaningful reform.

Many of those who have looked closely at the act are convinced that it can and should be improved before it is reauthorized. Many of those suggested reforms can be found in the so-called “Safe Act” introduced with bipartisan support by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) The Safe Act would put reasonable limits on the “sneak and peek” powers granted under the Patriot Act, apply stricter standards to requests for wiretaps and records, and tighten some of the loose definitions that could lead to problems down the road without in any way sacrificing the government’s ability to track or capture terrorists.

If the Patriot Act is to be fixed, Congress should listen to Craig and Durbin rather than either the attorney general or the Bush haters more interested in making their points than in solving real problems.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).