The article below was written for InterPress News Service
By William Fisher
In a political environment more fractious than Washington has seen in more than a decade, there are at least a few signs that left and right can find common ground.
A current example is a coalition of conservative interest groups that has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations to press for changes in the USA patriot Act.
Under the leadership of former Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican from Georgia, the new group, "Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances" (PCRB), will work to revise the most extreme provisions of the law that gave law enforcement and security agencies sweeping new powers in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.”
The new coalition includes Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Policy Center, the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Eagle Forum, the Second Amendment Foundation, and Brad Jansen, adjunct scholar, Competitive Enterprise Institute.
In an online interview, Barr told IPS, “The provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that keep me awake at night are those that undermine the basic notions of judicial review of Executive branch actions, and which undermine the notion embodied in the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights that the government should not be allowed to gather evidence against a person without at least some reasonable suspicion that the person has violated a law. If these provisions are allowed to stand and be employed by the government, then the Fourth Amendment will have been rendered essentially meaningless, and with it, the basic notion of privacy in America.”
He elaborated: “A core principle on which the conservative philosophy of governing is based is limited government. This principle is important not only when determining the appropriate levels of government spending, regulation, and interference in the economy, for example, but also when deciding if federal criminal laws give the government too much power. Thus, in assessing the USA PATRIOT Act, many conservatives have determined the law gives the federal government too much power, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, for instance.
“At the core”, he added, “liberals and conservatives alike share an interest in protecting individual liberties, especially those embodied in the Bill of Rights, against government efforts to take them away.”
The USA Patriot Act was hurriedly passed by Congress with little debate and signed by President Bush weeks after the terror attacks of September 11th 2001. It gave law enforcement and security agencies sweeping new powers. However, Congress agreed that since it was navigating in uncharted waters, it would allow several provisions of the law to “sunset”, or expire this year. These provisions would have to be reenacted for the law to stay on the books.
Regarding the conservative-liberal partnership, Barr told IPS, “For too many years, conservatives assumed that liberals, such as the ACLU, would be the People’s watchdog for civil liberties; and that when these liberties were threatened, we as conservatives could rely on the ACLU to go to court and to the legislature, to protect us. No longer can conservatives sit back and rely on liberals to protect our rights; we have to be involved, too. Conservatives, like liberals, must become actively enjoined in the fight to protect civil liberties in the wake of the government’s response to the attacks of 9-11. If we do not join together, we will lose the battle.”
At its maiden press conference in Washington, members of the coalition were sharply critical of the “absolutist” position of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. A spokesman said he hoped the current Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, would be more flexible.
“Anyone who takes the position that Americans who stand up and fight to retain our civil liberties, including the right to privacy, and who believe that we as Americans do not need to sacrifice our liberty in order to fight terrorists, are aiding and abetting terrorists, is rendering a disservice to our Founding Fathers, and to Americans through the ages who cherish and fight for our God-given liberties,” Barr said.
He declared that the PRCB is focusing its efforts on reforming federal laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, that “have given the government too much power in the fight against terrorists. We are not engaged in leveling personal attacks against the former Attorney General or anyone else”.
PRCB is urging Congress to modify several provisions of the law, including:
Section 215, which allows federal agents to secretly collect records about you, such as medical documents, library records, and even records of firearm purchases, without specific evidence linking you individually to a foreign agent.
Section 213, which allows federal agents to secretly search peoples’ homes and
businesses and snoop through their personal property without notice.
Section 802, which expands the definition of domestic terrorism so broadly that
ordinary people trying to exercise their First Amendment rights on issues across
the political spectrum might get charged as terrorists.
PRCB is a non-partisan organization,” Barr told IPS. “We will work with Democrats and Republicans alike in both House of the Congress, to bring balance back to the fight against terrorists. In the last Congress, efforts to bring that balance back to the USA PATRIOT Act, for example, as set forth in the SAFE Act, enjoyed bipartisan support; and we expect that Democrats and Republicans in both Houses will support our efforts in this 109th Congress, too.”
He declared, “For as long as I have been involved in matters involving the federal government – going back to the early 1970s – I have observed that Administrations of both major parties seek more secrecy in what they do, than the People should consent to.”
Asked whether the Bush Administration’s position favoring secrecy, and viewing the debate over the USA PATRIOT Act as black and white, with no room for amendment, makes the coalition’s job more difficult, Barr said, “Yes, but I believe that when all is said and done in this debate this year in which the Congress will address the USA PATRIOT Act, we will witness some compromises by the Administration.”