by Farhan Zahid
A proposed measure to narrow the far-reaching powers of government surveillance and law enforcement enacted by 2001′s PATRIOT Act, the Security and Freedom Enhanced (SAFE) Act, bill S. 1709, was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House last month. The SAFE Act would provide stronger standards for judicial review and oversight.
The PATRIOT Act was pushed through Congress by the Bush administration in a matter of days, with little debate and few dissenting votes in the wake of the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks. The PATRIOT Act permits the use of “sneak and peek” measures and delayed notification searches, in practically any criminal investigation. The deadline for notifying the subject of the search is indefinite. The bill was followed up with a plethora of similar executive orders, regulations and policies, such as establishing military commissions not adhering to due process norms and denying the right to a fair trial for citizens and non-citizens labeled “enemy combatants.” The Justice Department asserts that these extra measures are necessary to thwart terrorists before they strike.
The new bill has broad bi-partisan support. Sponsors in the senate include Democrats Russ Feingold (WI) and Ron Wyden (OR) and Republicans Larry Craig (ID) and John Sununu (NH). In the house, sponsors include Democrats Dennis Kucinich (OH) and Barney Frank (MA) and Republicans Butch Otter (ID) and Ron Paul (TX). Liberal and conservative organizations alike, sharing a mutual concern for civil liberties, are advocating the SAFE Act. This includes the American Conservative Union, American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association and Gun Owners of America. Lara W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, says on the organization’s website that the strong bi-partisan support is indicative of the vast extent to which the Bush administration has strayed from our traditional system of checks and balances against overreaching government authority.
The SAFE Act would allow the “sneak and peek” authority to be used only in circumstances in which a federal judge rules that without the delayed notification, an individual’s physical safety will be endangered, someone will flee prosecution, or evidence faces destruction. The notification deadline would also be changed to seven days.
However, law enforcement would be able to seek indefinite extensions issued on a weekly basis by a federal judge. The proposed law also requires a semi-annual report to congress from the U.S. attorney general in regard to the status, permitted or denied, of delayed notification searches and extensions. Moreover, the SAFE Act has a provision that repeals its sneak and peek power in 2005, only to be reinstated if voted for in Congress.
Among the most controversial provisions in the PATRIOT Act is section 215, which grants the FBI permission to obtain Americans’ business, library, medical and genetic records without probable cause. Under the SAFE Act, the government must prove to a federal judge that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power to receive this privilege.
The house version of the bill goes further than its senate counterpart by replacing the PATRIOT Act’s broad and vague definition of “domestic terrorism,” which could cover some acts of civil disobedience by non-violent political protestors. The new definition associates domestic terrorism with serious violent crimes such as bombing, kidnapping and hijacking.
More than 200 cities, towns and counties in 34 states, including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Oakland, Seattle, Detroit and Baltimore, with a combined population of around 26 million, have passed resolutions in opposition to the PATRIOT Act and declared themselves “civil liberties safe zones.” Local police are forbidden to engage in racial profiling, enforce immigration laws or participate in federal investigations that violate civil liberties. Dozens of state library associations have also passed-anti-PATRIOT-Act resolutions.