Word that the Justice Department has drafted a new, more restrictive, more secretive Patriot Act is unsettling. Equally unsettling is the suspicion that the administration is essentially sitting on the draft, waiting until some manner of national emergency would make it easier to ram the bill through Congress.
In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration got passage of the USA Patriot Act of 2001, with little debate and with Attorney General John Ashcroft accusing legislators who balked of being soft on terrorism. Although the act was a civil libertarian's nightmare, few had the courage to speak up, given the climate at the time.
Which is exactly why the debate on the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 should be held now.
A 120-page draft of the proposed law, written in secret, showed up on the Web site of the watchdog Center for Public Integrity.
It's officially unofficial
The Justice Department's official explanation is that these are ideas that have been kicking around the department and that nothing official or final has been decided. The indications are, however, that this bill is fairly far along. Drafts have reportedly been sent to Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
The bill would increase surveillance of citizens without court order; legitimize secret arrests; create a database of the DNA of anyone the Justice Department determines to be a "suspect," without court order. It would facilitate deportations of legal immigrants based on mere suspicions and would allow the administration to strip the citizenship from anyone who gave "material support" to any group the attorney general labels a terrorist organization. It would also clamp down even further on public information.
Lawmakers and their aides contacted by news agencies were unaware of the proposals, but the Bush administration likes to keep Congress in the dark and likes to spring its initiatives with little notice. And the elements of "security enhancement" are consistent with Justice Department thinking.
If the Domestic Security Enhancement Act comes to Congress, the lawmakers should not let themselves be stampeded as they were with the Patriot Act. This bill should get the scrutiny it deserves no matter when and under whatever circumstances it finally arrives.