Americans are confused and troubled by the USA Patriot Act, a linchpin in the Bush administration’s efforts to identify al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers, reports USA Today. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll suggests that most Americans back the idea behind the law, which gives federal agents more latitude to spy on U.S. citizens and non-citizens while hunting terrorists.
Confusion about the law complicates the debate over whether the White House and Congress went too far after Sept. 11, 2001, by passing a law that threatens civil liberties. The Patriot Act significantly expanded the power of federal law enforcement by allowing the FBI and CIA to share evidence and by giving terrorism investigators access to evidence-gathering tools that agents in criminal probes have used for years.
A majority of Americans mistakenly believe that the act authorizes military tribunals for foreign terrorism suspects and that it calls for the indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” captured in Afghanistan and on U.S. soil. The new survey found that 71 percent disapprove of a section that allows agents to delay telling people that their homes have been secretly searched. About half of those surveyed are uneasy about two parts of the law that allows the FBI to obtain records from businesses, including hospitals, bookstores and libraries, and that permits agents to ask financial institutions whether terror suspects have accounts with them.
More than 250 communities have passed resolutions critical of the law. “It’s become part of the drinking water in this country that there’s been an erosion of civil liberties,” Deputy Attorney General James Comey says. “We have divided into two groups: those who think that’s OK and those who don’t.”
USA Today says that Attorney General John Ashcroft occasionally has blurred fact and fiction in giving the law credit for preventing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. He has belittled anyone who has questioned the law and played down how it has expanded the power of federal law enforcement agencies to gather evidence.
Critics, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, have contributed to misperceptions by glossing over how secret surveillance has long been allowed under other laws. TV scriptwriters take literary license by casting the law as the latest interrogation-room weapon for fictional cops. Misinformation does not serve the public, says former House majority leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who expresses concern about the act’s impact on privacy. “Unfortunately,” he says, “political discourse was never designed to elevate intellect.”