Renew cautiously

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Jan. 10, 2006 


The most talked about issue in Washington this month will probably be the confirmation process of Samuel Alito. While I'm not one to say the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice is any small occasion, I'm worried serious discussion about the renewal of the Patriot Act will slide off the radar.

Right before the holiday season, Congress -- stymied in the way only Congress can be -- failed to renew the controversial law, notorious for hastily broadening law enforcement powers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After staunch objections by civil libertarians, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, Congress temporarily imposed an extension of the act until Feb. 3.

My exact feelings regarding the Patriot Act are mixed. On the one hand, I want a strong national security system that works to fulfill the promise protecting the country against domestic or foreign enemies. On the other hand, I highly value my privacy and am not comfortable with the idea of the government tapping my telephone, reviewing my library books or looking into what I Google.

I imagine most Americans are with me on that. So, now comes the hard part: balancing security with liberty.

This debate seems to be more about how many changes can be made to ensure as much privacy protection as possible rather than if the act should be renewed at all. Certainly, if pinned to the wall, a majority of congressional representatives would support the act's renewal, which is why we should proceed with an actual debate.

The Patriot Act is not, as it is often made out to be, a 500-page document that strips away freedom at every punctuation mark. The vast majority of the law contains necessary provisions for our national defense strategy.

But its controversial provisions -- the ones that allow an unfettered government to snoop into our personal lives -- should be heavily streamlined. Many of the provisions were given sunset status and were to expire by 2006. Once renewed, these provisions should always have a "sunset" built in to allow elected Congresses and presidents in the future to modify them when they come up for debate every few years. This should also keep the public alert that such provisions still exist and require attention.

There are checks and balances that could be put into place to help harmonize liberty with security. Currently, the government can search homes without notices. Requiring the government to contact a person whose home or business was looked at within a week of the search would help ensure accountability. Requirements to provide stronger links between a person and alleged illegal activity would also be extraordinarily valuable, as would more court oversight in the realm of wiretapping.

The time for a debate regarding safety and liberty is now. If the worst were to happen and the United States was hit again by foreign or domestic terrorists, there would be even less debate than there was when the Patriot Act was originally shoved through. We should be thinking about protecting civil liberties now when we're as rational as we'll probably be.


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