A federal judge has declared unconstitutional a Patriot Act provision that forbids giving advice or assistance to groups identified as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
In the first ruling to strike down part of the post-September 11 antiterrorism statute, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins in Los Angeles said the provision is too vague to enforce and violates the Constitution's First and Fifth amendments, which protect freedom of speech and defendants from self-incrimination, respectively.
"The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature," said the ruling filed Friday and released yesterday.
A Justice Department spokesman said the ruling is being reviewed, but the provision was a "modest amendment to a pre-existing antiterrorism law that was designed to deal with real threats caused by support of terrorist groups."
Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, called it "significant that yet another court has delivered a rebuke to the government's unconstitutional policies and practices in the wake of September 11."
The court challenge was brought by the Humanitarian Law Project on behalf of five groups and two U.S. citizens, who sought to assist Kurdish refugees in Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey was designated as a terrorist organization in 1997 by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
The plaintiffs say they wanted to give lawful and nonviolent support to the Kurds, but were threatened with 15 years in prison. The ruling rejected the Patriot provision because it did not allow for peaceful assistance or advice.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the provision makes it clear that "Americans are threatened as much by the person who teaches a terrorist to build a bomb as by the one who pushes the button."
"The Patriot Act is an essential tool in the war on terror and has played a key part -- and often the leading role -- in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life," Mr. Corallo said.
Judge Collins, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton in 1994, struck down a similar provision in a 1996 federal antiterrorism law that banned "training" or "providing" personnel to groups designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations. That law was enacted in response to the Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 persons were killed in a federal building.
Meanwhile, President Bush last week called on Congress to make numerous other contentious measures in the Patriot Act permanent, but a key House Republican has blocked any action until next year, when a new Congress -- and perhaps a new president -- will make the final decision.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will wait until 2005 to hold hearings and consider changes to the law, his spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said yesterday.
"The chairman's intention is to continue to do aggressive oversight of the Patriot Act this year, and assuming that he is chairman next year, it is his intention to begin extensive hearings on the Patriot Act," Mr. Lungren said.
Congress put a four-year "sunset" or limit on several provisions in the law, which expires Dec. 31, 2005.
Congressional critics of the act say they will continue to push the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act to amend the Patriot Act.
The bill would limit the use of "sneak and peek" search warrants that allow searches without notifying the target to situations where a life is at stake, evidence might be destroyed or if there is a flight risk.
Roving wiretaps, which allow surveillance of any phone a person is known to use, could be employed only when the suspect is present. Warrants for these wiretaps also must identify the target and location of the wiretap.
Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said the legislation "is a measured, reasonable, and appropriate response to bipartisan concerns with the USA Patriot Act."
"The SAFE Act ensures that the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation's fight against terrorism, without impeding that fight," Mr. Craig said.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Mr. Sensenbrenner said "over my dead body" will the act be reauthorized without undergoing thorough re-examination in hearings held by the House.
Mr. Bush told Congress that "the terrorist threat will not expire" on the same day as the Patriot Act.
"Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens. You need to renew the Patriot Act," Mr. Bush said.
Claire Buchan, White House spokeswoman, yesterday said the president did not set a time frame.
"He was laying down the marker on a very important issue," she said.
Mr. Corallo at Justice said passage this year is "not imperative."
"The president wanted to spark the debate, to show that it is vitally imperative to this administration's ability to protect life and liberty."
The Patriot Act passed by overwhelming votes in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but local governments nationwide are rejecting the law. The Los Angeles City Council last week became the 237th governing body in 37 states representing 34 million Americans to condemn the law and call for its repeal.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.