- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

The number of Americans coming under scrutiny of the Patriot Act is growing significantly, and so is the number of Americans calling on Congress to repeal or modify the law.

Hundreds of city and county governments across the nation last year initiated the grass-roots effort by passing resolutions declaring they would not cooperate with the federal government in enforcing the law, which they claim undermines civil liberties.

Those voices grew louder last week when the nation’s oldest and largest national group of elected municipal government officials, the National League of Cities (NLC), passed a resolution at its annual meeting calling for Congress to repeal parts of the act.

“Cities and towns need a partnership with the federal government on homeland security issues that makes sure we have the resources we need to get the job done but also preserves the liberties that Americans hold dear,” Charlie Lyons, NLC president and Arlington, Mass., selectman, said in a written statement.

The NLC members represent 18,000 cities with 225 million residents.

The concerns listed by the NLC mirror those expressed by civil liberties and national librarian organizations, as well as some Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing legislation to overhaul the act, which became law in the month after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Critics question the law’s broad powers, such as allowing law enforcement to perform “sneak and peek” searches without notification or anyone present, and permitting FBI officials to obtain records from libraries while prohibiting librarians from notifying the persons involved.

Justice Department officials defend the Patriot Act as a needed tool in the war on terrorism, and say criticism of its use is overblown.

After the American Library Association last year attacked a provision allowing the review of library records, Attorney General John Ashcroft declassified information to show the act had never been used to look at library records.

The resolution passed by the NLC urges the president and Congress to amend the Patriot Act “to restore and protect our nation’s fundamental and inalienable rights and liberties.”

The group also cited the following concerns:

• The secretary of state is given broad powers to designate domestic groups as “terrorist organizations” and the attorney general has power to subject immigrants to indefinite detention or deportation even if they have committed no crime.

• Public universities are required to collect information on students who may be of interest to the attorney general.

• Law enforcement officials are given broad access to sensitive mental health, library, business, educational and financial records.

Many Americans are encountering the Patriot Act when opening bank accounts. The law requires financial institutions to run the names of customers through the Office of Foreign Asset Control database, which lists people who are known terrorists or who associate with known terrorists.

New bank customers are asked how many wire transactions they expect to make each month. If the reply is five or more, the customer would be reported to the federal government.

The Patriot Act also gives the Treasury Department authority to order financial institutions to search private accounts and transaction records and report suspicious activity.

This information program administered by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is used by federal law enforcement agencies and in 2003 provided data for 64 terrorism financing cases and 124 money-laundering investigations.

“The program enables federal law enforcement agencies, through FinCEN, to reach out to over 29,000 financial institutions to locate accounts and transactions of persons that may be involved in terrorism or money laundering,” said a statement posted on FinCEN’s Web site.

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