You know something’s seriously askew when we Second Amendment conservatives keep finding common cause with the American Civil Liberties Union. But, folks in Washington just keep ignoring basic constitutional freedoms when setting policy. And, in this case, two heads — regardless of how much they may disagree the rest of the time — are better than one.
We recently agreed to sign onto yet another ACLU advertisement, which ran in conservative publications and about 10 largely conservative states. This ad targeted a series of antiprivacy provisions that were in legislation to carry out the September 11 Commission recommendations. Republican House leaders pulled legislation from the floor last weekend, essentially killing the measure for the 108th Congress.
This isn’t time to celebrate, though. This legislation will likely rear an even uglier head later this year or next session, particularly if there is another attempt to enact “poison pill” provisions rejected by the conference committee. Conservatives and liberals alike must be ready to challenge these provisions when they resurface.
Among these provisions in the House version of the bill are sections to federalize issuance of driver’s licenses — which essentially creates a national identification card — and to carry out a number of expansions of the Patriot Act that will infringe on fundamental rights.
Consider the national ID proposal. Though we believe it a bad idea from the get-go, most Americans, we would hope, would at least concede it is a policy that should be engaged gingerly and with careful consideration.
House and Senate power brokers, however, have included a sop to the state motor vehicle administrators in the form of a nationally standardized driver’s license. This new system would effectively link all motorist data from across the country and take away the sovereign right of the states to decide who does, and does not, qualify for a license to drive.
The end product would be a driver’s license that, more than likely, will include a radio identifier chip and some biometric data, allowing the government to track individual Americans’ movements with ease. Every time we pass through a toll, or board an airplane, or enter a state or federal government facility, that will be tracked and recorded.
Similarly, as the driver’s license identifier supplants the Social Security number as the preferred identity indicator in employment, banking and other activities, tracking of these activities will also begin in a central data repository.
The result would be a country where the government could, at the press of a button, call up a high-resolution “image” of our daily activities, even if it has no reason to believe we are engaged in illegal activity.
Although we certainly believe the government has a responsibility to do its level best to keep us safe from terrorism, that mandate should not, nor need it, abandon wholesale the core American principle of individual liberty through limited government and state sovereignty.
This danger would be many times greater with creation of an intelligence “czar,” mandated in the Senate version of the legislation. This position would control both the pursestrings and operations of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
That promises to expand and enshroud in greater secrecy the government’s domestic intelligence operations. Congress should vest any authority to “spy” on Americans, for criminal or intelligence purposes, with law enforcement branch, which is accustomed to operating within the bounds of the Constitution, and should empower a real privacy and civil liberties protection board with subpoena power to track abuses.
The Patriot Act provisions, included in the House bill, are equally troubling. Many add-on sections not recommended by the September 11 Commission were either included in the draft “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003,” which quickly earned the nickname “Patriot II” or “Son of Patriot” and consequently was never introduced, or expansions of surveillance or investigative power already enacted in the original USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2001.
While the conference committee wisely accepted important border-security improvements, it removed many of these contentious “poison pill” powers, which would not make our country safer or crack down on illegal immigration. Rather, these provisions would have permanently expanded the powers of the secret “spy” court, forced Christians and others fleeing persecution to provide written “corroboration” from the very officials they are fleeing, and denied to many legal immigrants the right of court review of illegal government action.
The rejection of these poison pills deserves praise from small-government conservatives. If Congress learned one thing from the Patriot Act, it is that haste makes for poorly conceived legislation. When Congress returns from the Thanksgiving break, it should keep these Patriot Act and other “poison pill” provisions out, and kill the national identification provisions altogether. Congress can still come up with an intelligence reform bill that doesn’t intrude on civil liberties.
It’s not the conservative or liberal thing to do — it’s the right thing to do.
Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representative from Georgia and was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. He holds the 21st Century Liberties Chair for Freedom and Privacy at the American Conservative Union and is a board member of the Patrick Henry Center. Larry Pratt is executive director of Gun Owners of America and a former member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.