- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Two years after the president signed the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act into law, millions and millions of Americans from communities across the country agree: This law goes too far.

Three states and close to 200 cities and counties have enacted resolutions expressing concern about the PATRIOT Act, and many Americans nationwide are troubled by the law. It is time for Congress and the administration to take these concerns seriously.

In the administration’s recent public-relations campaign to defend the PATRIOT Act, critics were labeled as “hysterics.” But Americans concerned about their privacy are not “hysterics.” They are legitimately worried that the PATRIOT Act gives the government too much power to snoop and collect information on law-abiding Americans.

Under one provision of the PATRIOT Act, the federal government can demand that doctors turn over medical records or pharmacists turn over information about drug prescriptions. The federal government can demand that credit card companies and banks turn over information about purchases and financial transactions. Magazines, newspapers or other periodical publishers could be asked to turn over subscription lists. The federal government could even demand that clubs, charitable organizations, churches, synagogues and mosques turn over membership lists. All the government has to do is assert that the information is “sought for” an international terrorism or counterintelligence investigation, and courts are required to issue a subpoena — without any review of the merits.

Facing increasing criticism of this part of the PATRIOT Act, the administration recently revealed it has so far not used this provision. But the potential for abuse still exists. By changing the law to re-insert a pre-PATRIOT Act requirement that the FBI show that the records it seeks relate to a suspected terrorist or spy, we can allow the FBI to follow up on legitimate leads, while also protecting the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans. If the provision has not yet been used, why not modify it now to address a legitimate concern about its scope?

The burden is on the administration, which sought the powers in the PATRIOT Act, to show that the law is consistent with the Constitution. This burden should weigh especially heavily on the administration now that it has proposed that Congress give it even more power. One such “PATRIOT II” proposal, an administrative subpoena provision, would grant the federal government unprecedented power to compel people to appear practically anywhere to be questioned or to produce documents, all without prior court approval. And if the recipient of the subpoena wishes to challenge it in court, the court would be required to review the government’s submission in defense of its subpoena request in secret.

Regrettably, rather than working to address legitimate concerns with the current PATRIOT Act, the administration ridicules critics of the Act and demands even more unchecked power allowing it to snoop and collect information on the lives of law-abiding Americans.

It is time for the administration and Congress to heed the calls for reform.

More and more Americans, from across the political spectrum, are questioning the PATRIOT Act. Over the last two years, their voices have grown stronger, and their concerns have only deepened as PATRIOT II proposals have been put forward.

Americans support common-sense proposals to protect privacy and civil liberties that would not in any way undermine the fight against terrorism. They have asked the administration and Congress to listen. Hearing their concerns and acting on them would be the patriotic thing to do.

Russell Feingold, a Democrat, is a member of the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin.

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