Thursday, October 16, 2003

A bipartisan group of lawmakers and advocacy groups have formed a “Coalition of Conscience” to roll back sections of the Patriot Act they say encroach on civil liberties.

“This is an amazing coalition. Very seldom do these groups and these senators come together,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, and Mr. Durbin — joined by representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and American Conservative Union, among others — yesterday introduced the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act.

The bill would limit the use of “sneak and peek” search warrants, which allow searches without notifying the target, to situations where a life is at stake, evidence may be destroyed or there is a flight risk.

Roving wiretaps, which allow surveillance of any phone a person is known to use, could only be employed when the suspect is present. Warrants for these wiretaps must also identify the target and location of the wiretap.

Mr. Craig said they could not document any abuses of the Patriot Act since it was first enacted two years ago.

“This has nothing to do with the current administration; it’s about putting into effect the right law,” he said.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said the bill is a “wake-up call to Congress and the administration to address serious concerns.”

Mr. Feingold said during a press briefing that 90 percent of the Patriot Act was sound, but that there was a strong bipartisan effort to change the remaining 10 percent.

The Patriot Act passed two years ago with overwhelming support from Congress. Opposition to the SAFE Act is expected, but none was voiced after a press conference yesterday. The Justice Department was asked to comment on the pending legislation but declined to respond immediately.

The bill also reinstates pre-Patriot Act standards for seizing business and library records, and the FBI must show a suspected terrorist or spy is being targeted. Library computers could not be searched without a court order.

“We are very happy about this,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association. “This bill recognizes many problems the general public has been concerned about,” she said.

The ACLU sued the government, saying those sections of the law allow the FBI to obtain medical, business, library and genetic records without probable cause.

“That the bill could garner strong support from both sides of the aisle shows just how far the government has strayed from the American ideals of checks and balances against overreaching government authority,” said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office.

Nearly 200 communities have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act and refusing to comply with it.

“It’s time we adjusted this law to assure civil liberties are not being trampled,” Mr. Craig said.

Sen. Michael D. Crapo, Idaho Republican, called the bill a “sincere, real bipartisan effort that has meaningful chance of passing into law.”

Mr. Craig said he expects the Justice Department will oppose the measure but predicted President Bush would sign it into law if they attach it to a spending measure. He said a “natural” choice would be the appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments.

Several organizations endorsed the SAFE Act in a letter to lawmakers yesterday, including Gun Owners of America, the Free Congress Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Center for National Security Studies, American Library Association, ACU and ACLU.

Mr. Durbin said it was possible to be “both safe and free in America” and that it was the “responsibility in Congress to draw that line.”

“Frankly, we’re crossing party lines to do the right thing,” Mr. Durbin said.

Noting how rare it is for Mr. Durbin and Mr. Craig to join forces and co-author legislation, Republican Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire joked it could only mean one thing: “One of them has not read it.”

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