By RHONDA CHRISS LOKEMAN
In the name of "homeland security," government officials can access your credit history, library and medical records, voice-mail messages and search your home without probable cause. It's part of the USA Patriot Act. Parts of the bill expire this year.
Some in Congress now realize the error of their post-Sept. 11 haste. Last week Senate and House lawmakers tried to modify sections under reauthorization bills. One Senate Intelligence Committee proposal, however, seeks to expand government powers.
Why should the government, which claims not to know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, believe it has a right to know if a man takes Viagra, a woman reads mystery novels or a deacon watches porn during hotel stays? Under the Patriot Act, your private life could be part of a government database without you knowing.
It's no wonder author Ray Bradbury, speaking recently to the American Library Association, found similarities to the Bush administration and the fictional police state in his "Fahrenheit 451."
You can't get the Bush administration to talk freely about prisoner abuses at Gitmo, about underwear-draped detainees at Abu Ghraib, about what White House insider(s) illegally exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame, or who sat on the vice president's covert energy task force. Yet, the government wants to know everything about you even if you've committed no crime.
"I think there is clearly a campaign to fan people's fears, but there's no demonstration that we are safer today because of the Patriot Act," said John Simpson, acting interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Missouri.
Ellen Treimel, field organizer for the St. Louis-based Missouri Public Interest Research Group, said she has "some concerns around the privacy issue because of the fact that there's so much exchange of information." She expects the Patriot Act to come up when the board meets in Boston in August.
The New York Times reported last Friday on a recently declassified FBI e-mail indicating that there wasn't enough evidence to arrest an Oregon lawyer, a Muslim, under the material-witness law. Brandon Mayfield was arrested and jailed for about two weeks before he was released with a government apology. He is suing the government for violating his constitutional rights through wiretaps and singling him out because of his religion. What ought to concern people is not just the mistakes we know about, but the ones we don't.
Last week Sens. Arlen Specter and Dianne Feinstein introduced a bipartisan bill to provide what Specter called "a very careful balance" between fighting terrorism and protecting liberties. The Judiciary Committee members proposed a bill to impose a four-year sunset on sections pertaining to turning over library and medical records to the government. Specter said their bill seeks to provide "a very careful balance" between fighting terrorism and protecting liberties. Such a balance is sorely needed.
Yet their bill and those in the House fell short of the ACLU's ideal. The ACLU and PEN American Center are among groups that believe the Patriot Act needs extermination, not reauthorization.
That's wishful thinking but not such a bad idea, given the current imperial presidency exemplified by secrecy and pre-emptive strikes in fighting the war on terror at home and abroad.
Under the pre-emption policy, legalized by the Patriot Act, people don't have to commit a crime to be considered persons of interest or terror suspects for the government to use wiretaps on your phone, your neighbors' and relatives'.
As Congress considered reauthorization proposals last week, the ACLU stated, "This sweeping legislation must be fixed if Americans are to preserve our basic freedoms and protect ourselves from broad government searches of our personal records and information."
Two Patriot Act reauthorization bills passed in House committees last week, but Wisconsin's Sen. Russ Feingold called them "simply not good enough." Feingold voted against the Patriot Act. He stated, "We must do better than this. Members of the House of both parties should stand up for our rights and freedoms when reauthorization comes to the House floor."
On this issue even some gun proponents and opponents can agree that excessive use of searches and seizures bear watching. People of opposing interests, political parties and ideologies are starting to unite.
X Rhonda Chriss Lokeman is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.