WASHINGTON Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch provided a forum Tuesday for activists from the right and left who both argue that in the name of saving freedom from terrorists after 9/11, federal officials have been destroying it.
They say the Patriot Act which Hatch helped shepherd through Congress gave too much power to authorities to detain and invade privacy of suspects, which they have abused. While Hatch doesn't necessarily agree, he said it is important to hear complaints and tweak the law where necessary.
"I believe that we must have both our civil liberties and national security or we will have neither," said Hatch, R-Utah.
Groups that rarely agree with each other including the right-wing American Conservative Union and the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union and Arab-American groups outlined a long list of problems they see. But some former Justice Department officials defended the Patriot Act and urged caution with any changes.
Conservative former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., representing both the American Conservative Union and surprisingly the ACLU, said instead of helping fight terrorism, the Patriot Act "appears to take us in a direction in which our liberties are being diminished. This need not be so, and it ought not be so."
For example, he complained about "sneak and peek" provisions that make it far easier to obtain delayed-notification search warrants allowing police to search property while owners are away without notifying them until much later, if at all.
He also complained it makes it easy for the government to issue "national security letters," which he said are essentially subpoenas given without judicial review to order access to a wide range of data about citizens saying it is needed for national security.
Barr called for rolling back such "excessive post-9/11 power before we turn the corner into another Japanese internment, or closer to our own experiences, before we witness a legally sanctioned Ruby Ridge or Waco scenario."
ACLU President Nadine Strossen added, "We are in danger of being governed by our fears rather than our values."
She said a sign of that is that supposedly antiterrorism provisions of the Patriot Act have even been used in a municipal corruption investigation in Las Vegas which had nothing to do with terrorism.
She said other post 9/11 problems include detaining hundreds of Arab immigrants without charges for long periods simply because neighbors reported they were "suspicious" because of such things as receiving packages with Arabic writing.
She said one example, identified only as "Mr. H," worked at a hospital and was detained because a co-worker "was concerned with his wearing a surgical mask more than necessary." He was held without charges six months before finally being cleared.
She said Altin Elezi has virtually disappeared after his arrest by the FBI at his home in Kearney, N.J., two years ago. His family cannot find him, and he is not in the detention facility that federal officials said he was in leading to suspicions he was killed.
James J. Zogby, president of the American Arab Institute, said such abuses are widely reported in the Arab world, and it is hurting American credibility abroad.
"We've become another one of the guys who have abused human rights," he said.
However, Viet Dinh, a former Justice Department official who negotiated the Patriot Act for the Bush administration, said with the act's help, "The American homeland has not suffered another terrorist attack in the last 26 months."
He said some activists focus on the right issues but ask the wrong questions such as when they complain about the detainment of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, who allegedly plotted to detonate a "dirty" radiological bomb, without charges because the administration proclaimed him an "enemy combatant."
"Many have decried the president's military authority to detain Padilla. But surely a military commander should have the power to incapacitate enemy combatants," he said. "The more difficult question . . . is whether the executive branch can hold these unlawful combatants without any process."
One who is unhappy with what he says are excesses by the Bush administration after 9/11 in the name of antiterrorism is Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
"Their own actions threaten to erode the very liberty and democracy that the terrorists are attacking," he said.U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for Congress not only to renew some sunsetting provisions of the Patriot Act but to widen them. Hatch said he plans a hearing early next year for Ashcroft and other officials to address the topic.