Rarely has an issue so deeply divided Republicans as the USA Patriot Act, which is pitting conservatives critical of the law against President Bush’s call to reauthorize it in an unusual election year intraparty debate.
The issue puts several Republicans in the peculiar position of defending Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, who opposes parts of the act as threats to constitutional protections.
“Kerry isn’t a supporter of terrorism any more than I am, just because we both raised some questions about whether some things in the Patriot Act go too far,” said former Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who thinks aspects of the law violate personal privacy.
“The Fourth Amendment is a nuisance to the administration, but the amendment protects citizens and legal immigrants from the government’s monitoring them whenever it wants, without good cause — and if that happens, it’s the end of personal liberty,” Mr. Barr said.
At a recent private gathering, former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin I. Meese III, long a hero to many in his party, defended the act against a battery of critics that included such conservative stalwarts as former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, Mr. Barr and American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.
Mr. Meese heatedly challenged them to come up with a single example of unlawful search and seizure and invasion of privacy by the government under the act.
“I don’t care if there were no examples so far,” Mr. Barr is said to have countered. “We can’t say we’ll let government have these unconstitutional powers in the Patriot Act because they will never use them. Besides, who knows how many times the government has used them? They’re secret searches.”
Some Republican critics, even though they are Bush loyalists, say that the Patriot Act was coined with the purpose of making it easy to label any critic of the act unpatriotic or soft on terrorism. They say Bush supporters plan to use that tactic against Mr. Kerry.
“Conservatives have always been split on the competing values of national security, on the one hand, and individual liberty and the mistrust of big government, on the other,” Mr. Keene said.
“I believe it’s a wedge issue they will try to use against Kerry. There have been several signals — Bush’s State of the Union speech and [Attorney General John] Ashcroft’s response to [Sen. Larry E.] Craig’s legislation — which attempt to characterize anyone who questions security [legislation] as not completely loyal.”
Backed by 30 other lawmakers in both parties, Mr. Craig, an Idaho Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Idaho Republican, are sponsoring bills to add what they say are needed provisions to protect personal liberty and privacy to the Patriot Act.
Opponents of the antiterrorism act say it lets the government “sneak and peek” at what a person has been reading in a public library, keeps on his home computer or has in his office financial records. The targeted person does not have to be informed of the searches before or, in some cases, afterward. Nor does the act require that the targeted person be a terrorism suspect.
Defenders counter that the measures are constitutional and there is nothing wrong with using the act to sweep up bad guys even if they aren’t terrorists.
“We did not write a criminal law to be limited to terrorism, except where we said so, and Congress intended these laws to be tools to protect us from all kinds of crimes,” said a House Judiciary Committee counsel who asked not to be identified.
In his State of the Union speech in January, Mr. Bush urged Congress to make permanent provisions in the act that are scheduled to expire Dec. 31, 2005.
Mr. Ashcroft has toured the country opposing the Craig-Otter proposal, saying it would weaken the government’s ability to fight terrorism. Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the legislation if enacted.
With conservative icons such as Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly and Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich also among the Patriot Act’s critics, Republicans on both sides of the issue say such a public division on so basic an issue is painful — especially in the middle of a presidential campaign. Some deny the rift exists.
“I don’t believe for a minute that the Patriot Act debate has created a rift in the Republican Party or among conservatives,” Mr. Otter said.
But Mr. Barr said the debate “has Republicans arguing among ourselves and our own president to an extent I’ve never seen before.”