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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- If you are reading this column on its day of publication, there's a chance that as you do so the president of the United States is meeting with a carefully selected audience in Buffalo's Kleinhans Music Hall to discuss the USA Patriot Act and its controversial renewal.

A yawner, you say? Not quite. The Patriot Act has already changed the lives of many Americans in the wake of Sept. 11 and, as I tell my college students, if renewed and strengthened it could alter the way almost all of us live.

Polls routinely show most Americans don't have a clue as to what the Patriot Act is, or if they do, about 70 percent of those surveyed think it's just fine and dandy. Civil libertarians and many members of Congress complain the 30-month-old legislation is just the opposite.

It's in the news again because President George W. Bush is stumping the Northeast to line up support for renewal of more than a dozen key provisions of the post-Sept. 11 act when they expire at the end of next year. He was scheduled to push for the act's reauthorization in a Pennsylvania visit Monday, and after his Buffalo visit Tuesday he will go on to New York City to meet with Republican supporters. Bush devoted last Saturday's national radio address to the subject.

The law has a lofty and stirring acronymic title: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."

For those of you barely paying attention, notice what the first letters of the main words spell out. Some bureaucrat got paid good taxpayer money for thinking this up. The 350-page law was passed in a hurry with lots of adrenalin-laden speeches just six weeks after the Sept. 11 disaster to give the law enforcement community new capabilities in preventing further terrorist acts. But members of Congress and their staffers had little time to study the language, and they insisted it be subject to "sunset" provisions so anything wrong in it could be corrected after a few years.

Plenty of Republicans and Democrats alike think there are lots of things wrong with the Patriot Act. It could morph into a key issue in this year's presidential election campaigning.

An example of a controversial provision in the law: Before Sept. 11 changed the world, law enforcement officers and prosecutors in America had to get a judge to sign off when they wanted to wiretap a suspected crook. The judge often would demand further clear reasons for suspicion. If the crook moved or got a new phone, the cops would have to repeat the process.

These days, a law enforcement agent, with easily obtained warrants, can obtain "roving" wiretap approvals that apply to the person, not the phone -- meaning the wiretap approval can follow the suspected person around for a long, long time.

In plain terms, the standards for legally snooping on anyone in this country are waaaay more lenient than they used to be.

Under the act, the FBI and other agencies -- by applying to a secret intelligence court -- can more easily monitor phone conversations, voicemail, e-mail, and obtain medical, financial, educational, genetic, banking, library, student and other personal records.

This permission does not require the FBI to show "probable cause" some suspected person is acting on behalf of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden or some foreign power. The applying agent merely has to assert the request is relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation, or even a vaguely described intelligence inquiry that is germane to national security.

This lack of requirement for specific information about suspicion of wrongdoing is not the only thing opponents of the law bitch about. A broad and automatic gag order comes attached to most of this. One example civil libertarians love to cite is the scenario in which a librarian would be asked to produce a list of who checked out copies of the Koran within a certain time frame. The librarian couldn't even tell an attorney about receiving this request. Same for bookstore owners or clerks who sold the Koran, or any other text or publication the feds found fishy.

Federal agents may now more easily obtain and execute "sneak-and-peek" search warrants. These, for instance, allow lawmen to surreptitiously enter your abode, scan your computer hard drive, search your closets and drawers and files and belongings, and not even notify you they have done so. All they have to do is convince a judge that such notification would create a flight risk, delay a trial, or endanger the collection of further evidence. How easy is that?

Permission to surveil suspicious religious or political groups without evidence of suspected wrongdoing is simply obtained under the Patriot Act.

These are but a few of the controversial provisions. Opponents have also noted the FBI and other agencies have been using the Patriot Act as an investigative cudgel to scoop up evidence in cases not even remotely connected to terrorism. Section 314 of the Patriot Act states the law can be applied to behavior "that may involve terrorist acts or money-laundering activities."

Note the clever and judicious placement by bill-drafters of the word or in that sentence. The FBI, for instance, has seized upon it to probe accusations of political corruption and money-laundering -- most notably involving a Las Vegas strip club owner's attempt to influence local officials to loosen laws that restrict the ability of patrons to touch nude dancers. Terrorism?

Democrats are not the only ones hollering about the Patriot Act. Don Young, a conservative Republican congressman from Alaska, has said the act resulted from "emotional voting" and has termed some provisions "stupid."

Sen. Larry Craig, a rock-ribbed conservative GOP stalwart from Idaho, has joined with Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois to introduce the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, which would re-introduce judicial review to some of the investigative provisions and would require the subjects of sneak-and-peek probes to be notified within seven days no matter what. Craig describes his bill as a measured and reasonable fine-tuning of the Patriot Act which would protect law-abiding citizens "without in any way impeding" the fight against terrorism.

Others are fearful that Bush's drive to renew the Patriot Act will involve inclusion of new provisions that Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked for -- including wider use of "administrative" subpoenas for search and seizure that don't need a judge's sanction and almost automatic denial of bail for any defendant accused of terrorist activities.

Bush, in last Saturday's radio address, said abandoning the Patriot Act by letting it sunset would "demonstrate willful blindness to a continuing threat."

Noting next year's expiration, Bush said, "Some politicians in Washington act as if the threat to America will also expire on that schedule."

Ironically, the White House is likely to gain support for the Patriot Act's renewal from some of the worst now-emerging political news Bush could possibly receive.

Analysis of evidence being compiled by an independent commission investigating the runup to Sept. 11 shows the warnings of such a terrorist act on American soil were urgent, persistent and widespread in the immediate months before -- or, as The New York Times put it Sunday, "Attacks Weren't Bolt From the Blue." That happened on George W. Bush's watch.

Much of the information meticulously compiled by the 9/11 Commission is showing that even specific warnings and evidence of a catastrophic terrorist attack were not shared by the FBI and CIA because of a so-called "wall" that -- as Attorney General Ashcroft described it -- "segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents" and kept them from legally trading such the clues.

That "wall" dates back to the Carter administration and a 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allowed the CIA and other foreign intelligence types to gather information within the United States if it wasn't used for criminal prosecution.

The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder wailed loudly that this impeded domestic criminal prosecutions by restricting the Justice Department, but Clinton administration prosecutors issued written guidelines as early as 1995 that allowed FBI-CIA sharing of anti-terrorist information over and through the perceived "wall."

Any reluctance to share hints of the Sept. 11 attack -- and the evidence is showing there were many -- is more likely attributable to FBI and CIA lethargy, and to the ingrained sense of derision, distrust and competition that flourished between those two investigative agencies.

The guess here is that President Bush will be widely supported in his push for renewal of the Patriot Act -- even if it includes expansion of surveillance and investigative powers that impede on civil liberties.

Three reasons for this prediction:

There is no such thing as national exclusivity anymore -- almost everything involving national security that happens or will happen is on a global basis.

The American public has finally grasped the need for largely unrestricted sharing of terrorism information between intelligence agencies and domestic criminal investigators if a future Sept. 11 is to be prevented.

Past wars and crises show Americans will always trade civil liberty for a sense of personal safety.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 20 2004