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Compromising Americans' Civil Liberties

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Two weeks before President Bush signed Congressional legislation extending the USA PATRIOT Act another four years, State College, Pa., became the 397th American community to reaffirm the belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights take precedence over any federal law. Not one of those resolutions should have been necessary. Nor should the legislatures of eight states Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont have had to pass legislation affirming the rights of all Americans. But they had to, and they did.

Encompassed by a nation in fear and a White House that was willing to exert extraordinary pressure to enact a political agenda, Congress overwhelmingly passed the PATRIOT Act six weeks after 9/11. Most members didn't read any of the 342-page bill, having been given less than 48 hours to do so by the Republican leadership. President Bush had called the Act necessary to defeat the terrorists; Attorney General John Ashcroft had said that anyone not supporting the bill would be aiding the terrorists. There was only one problem in the legislation it violated six Constitutional amendments. The Act gave wide latitude to the government to search and seize property, often without a court warrant, and to restrict defendants from using the courts to protest the intrusion upon their rights of privacy, or even to be allowed to be brought before a court to defend themselves. To mitigate that somewhat inconsequential unconstitutional problem, Congressional leaders inserted a "sunset" clause, calling for 16 of the more controversial 150 sections of the Act to terminate by Dec. 31, 2005.

About two years before the sunset with the U.S. mired in the Iraq quagmire and Osama bin Laden still running al-Qaeda the Bush-Cheney Administration began a massive political campaign not only to keep those sections, but also to further restrict human rights. They claimed that because the nation was at war, the Act was essential. While the President falsely claimed the entire PATRIOT Act, not just 16 sections, would cease at the end of the year and, thus, the terrorists would win and while most of the nation's mass media failed to point out the President was wrong the American people had begun to realize that the government's use of the PATRIOT Act didn't result in capturing terrorists as much as it did upon violating Constitutional rights of the innocent. By now, conservatives and liberals had begun forming alliances to oppose the PATRIOT Act. Among conservatives who opposed provisions of the Act are Newt Gingrich, former House speaker; Bob Barr, former congressman who led impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton; and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Among major national organizations opposing the Act are the ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the National League of Cities, and the largely-conservative American Bar Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

About one month after President Bush used his 2005 State of the Union Address to again push for full renewal of the PATRIOT Act, Nancy Kranich began a campaign to get her new hometown to formally oppose it.

Kranich's term as president of the American library Association ended three months before 9/11, but as a Board member and then as chair of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, she had pushed the ALA to become one of the first national associations to raise concern about the destruction of individual rights under the PATRIOT Act.

By the time she began working with the national Bill of Rights Defense Committee to pass a resolution in State College, more than 300 other communities had passed resolutions opposing what the jingoistic President and his Rasputin Vice-President were doing in the name of fighting terrorism. The official response by John Ashcroft's Department of Justice to the community resolutions that had opposed the Act was they were "either in cities in Vermont, very small population, or in college towns in California. It's in a lot of the usual enclaves where you might see nuclear free zones, or they probably passed resolutions against the war in Iraq." Those "very small population" cities included Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

A previous attempt to pass a resolution in State College had failed. Opposition from the mayor and borough council, as Kranich learned, was because most of them believed this was not a local issue, that they didn't want a resolution telling the police how to do their work, and, as the mayor said, they didn't want "marginal groups who would come to council to ask for [their own]resolution."

"That's when I knew I had to frame the campaign to deal with those issues, while educating the people about the PATRIOT Act itself," says Kranich. Through national forums, the League of Women Voters found that Americans were more likely to recognize the threats to their deeply valued civil liberties when they learned more about the Act . Combined with an extensive education campaign, Kranich and a growing core of volunteers attended community events, worked with student groups at Penn State, passed out flyers, and talked with people to "get a sense of the community."

The House of Representatives, cowing to Presidential powers, overwhelmingly supported extending the entire PATRIOT Act, including those sections that intruded upon civil liberties. The Senate was more reluctant. Fifty-two of the 100 senators, including eight Republicans, wrote a letter to the Senate leadership calling for a three month extension later raised to six months to allow for a calming period and a time to build into the four-year-old Act new citizen safeguards. "This obstruction is inexcusable," a furious President Bush lashed out after learning of the letter, and demanded the Senate follow the wishes of the House. Again invoking the 9/11 Bunker Mentality he had constructed to explain most of his actions, Bush raged that the "senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."

With the Act mired in controversy, Kranich took a new approach, one that would appeal to the Council's responsibilities. "We appealed to their oaths of office," says Kranich, who spent hours talking with members of council and the police, assuring them that when they took their oaths of office they promised to uphold the Constitution. Petitions also helped the elected officials understand the will of the people more than 700 residents had signed petitions in favor of the resolution. A petition to support the PATRIOT Act had about 50 signatures.

Nevertheless, Council members were now getting threats from residents who supported the PATRIOT Act. Most of the letters and phone calls centered around the fallacious argument that passing such a resolution would undermine the ability not only of the Bush-Cheney Administration to "catch terrorists," but would hurt federal funding for State College.

Under a barrage of hate mail, combined with Presidential threats and rants, the people in State College, says Kranich, "were now getting 'cold feet', and there was a lot of tension." Her committee increased its efforts to educate the people.

With Congress still arguing about extending suppression of civil liberties, about 150 people packed the borough council chambers the evening the resolution was to be introduced. Those unable to attend the meeting could watch it on local public access cable.

Fifteen spoke in favor, five opposed it. And then Nancy Kranich spoke for those who were silenced. She said she was speaking for those who were afraid to sign the petitions or speak out because they feared being watched, detained, or deported. The fear of the power of government to chill dissent is one of the greatest fears, says Kranich, and yet, "It's easy to lose those rights if we don't have the courage to speak up."

The Council did pass the resolution, 6-0, telling the nation that it affirms "its strong resolve to fight terrorism, but also affirm[s] that any actions to end terrorism must not be waged at the expense of fundamental liberties, rights, and freedoms of all people regardless of race, culture, and ethnicity." Mayor Bill Welch, who opposed the Resolution from the beginning, refused to sign it.

Congress extended the entire PATRIOT Act another four years, promised to look into the issue of civil liberties, and claimed it was a "compromise." That "compromise" ends one year after President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney are out of office and several thousand other Americans will have had their civil liberties compromised.

[Dr. Brasch is author of 16 books, including America's Unpatriotic Acts, a look at the violation of civil liberties in America; and 'Unacceptable: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina. Both are available at on-line bookstores. You may contact Brasch at]
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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)

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