A civil take on the Patriot Act

As party wrangling over judges, ambassadorial nominations and the ethics of Republican and Democratic leaders alike makes Congress look more and more like an asylum in which the inmates have truly seized control, it is interesting to note that islands of civility and sanity still exist.

As party wrangling over judges, ambassadorial nominations and the ethics of Republican and Democratic leaders alike makes Congress look more and more like an asylum in which the inmates have truly seized control, it is interesting to note that islands of civility and sanity still exist.

Remarkably, one such island is the Senate Judiciary Committee, where in the last weeks senators of both parties have begun a serious examination of the so-called USA Patriot Act. The act was cobbled together in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, and passed hastily by a Congress and administration scrambling to deal with an unprecedented threat to our security. It granted long-sought investigative and law-enforcement powers to the government but raised the hackles of civil libertarians and even worried many of those in Congress who voted for it.

Those concerns were enough to persuade a majority in Congress to “sunset” some of the more controversial parts of the legislation to force a review in hopefully calmer times and after everyone had some experience living under it. That sun will set Dec. 31 of this year on the provisions Congress wanted to look at more closely, unless action is taken before then.

The hearings began with testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who, while unsurprisingly defending everything his agency has done since Sept. 11, expressed an apparently sincere willingness to look anew at the act, listen to its critics and perhaps even accept reforms as long as they don’t “compromise our security interests.”

Critics of the act were heartened by his tone. They were accustomed to being accused willy-nilly of being soft on terrorism or in league with the enemy by his predecessor, even when raising questions about the extraordinary government powers granted in the act.

To be fair to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, it must be noted that under his direction the Department of Justice acted far more responsibly in pursuing the war on terrorism than many of his critics have believed. Abuses under the act were rare, and he didn’t utilize the powers given him to the degree that he might have. Thus much of what critics have feared might happen hasn’t happened — yet. Now Congress is looking for ways to guarantee that it won’t happen tomorrow.

As attorney general, Ashcroft bothered his critics more with his rhetoric and his unwillingness to consider the legitimacy of any questions about the act, or the potential threat some of its provisions posed to innocent citizens, than anything. One of his former congressional colleagues told me over lunch one day that, while “I love John, I can’t understand why he or any other rational human being would go before the House Judiciary Committee and answer the chairman’s questions by essentially telling him to go pound salt.”

Ashcroft was, of course, mostly right about the act. Most of the provisions included in its several hundred pages were needed and are relatively uncontroversial. They did update law enforcement’s ability to operate in an evolving hypertechnological world and allowed law enforcement and intelligence agencies to coordinate and communicate in ways that had been prohibited and had handcuffed them in the war on terror.

Even spokesmen for the ACLU acknowledge that 95-98 percent of the act was needed and has their support. They don’t support repeal and don’t believe any of the reforms they and conservatives like me support would hamper the war on terror.

What they do believe is that the reforms contained in what has become known as the SAFE Act, introduced in the Senate by Democrat Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Republican Larry Craig (Idaho) even as Gonzales was testifying, would safeguard individual liberties if some future Justice Department decides to use powers granted to fight terrorists for less legitimate reasons.

Reforms contained in the SAFE Act have the support of senators as different as Durbin and Craig and groups as diverse as the American Conservative Union (which I head) and the ever-contentious ACLU. This gives the act an opportunity finally to be taken seriously.

What’s perhaps more impressive is that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in both houses are sitting down together for a serious look at legislation that affects us all but is as susceptible to demagoguery as anything before them.

Although the jury will remain out for a while, this could conceivably be taken as evidence that Washington is not quite as dysfunctional as most of us fear.

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