USA Patriot Act: Hard To Judge, Mostly Untested

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As Attorney General John Ashcroft speaks across the nation in defense of the USA Patriot Act, is the measure as bad as the critics charge? The Los Angeles Times takes a close look and reports a mixed picture.

Case in point: library groups and booksellers criticize the measure’s giving federal agents powers to obtain patrons’ reading records. Previously, they had to use a grand jury in a criminal investigation. Now, the government may get those records and many others in intelligence investigations via the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where the standard of proof is lower.

Librarians point to a study that shows that law enforcement officials have visited libraries hundreds of times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the same study shows that the number of such visits was higher before the attacks.

The case of alleged “dirty bomb” plotter Jose Padilla, an American being held in a military prison without a lawyer or formal charges, strikes many critics as the most dubious of the government’s post-Sept. 11 moves.

Other measures being attacked have yet to be fully deployed. The American Civil Liberties Union warned that the law’s definition of “domestic terrorism” is so broad that it covers political organizations. Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney, said the definition is so vague that, in the hands of the wrong prosecutor, it could end up ensnaring political protesters, including those working for antiabortion groups or certain environmental organizations.

Of the law’s 300 pages, “Most people have this idea that [it] is a huge, monolithic charter. But you get down to brass tacks, there isn’t that much to it, really,” said William C. Banks, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law. “There are a few, maybe a half-dozen controversial provisions, some of which I think are quite problematic.


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