Patriot Act debated at Centre

October 28, 2003|HERB BROCK

The national debate over the controversial federal anti-terrorism law known as the U.S.A. Patriot Act came to Danville Monday night as experts representing both sides of the ongoing argument over the measure spoke at a forum at Centre College.

Favoring more of a conversational approach to the confrontational tact that has characterized the national debate, the two speakers - one an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and the other a U.S. attorney - agreed that the quarrel over the act reflects the historic tension in the U.S. between promoting national security and protecting civil liberties. Their disagreement is over whether the act disrupts the delicate balance in favor of security.

But while the mild-mannered debate held Monday night and the louder one occurring in Congress indicate growing concern the fact remains that there actually have been few investigations or prosecutions under the measure: about 200 nationally and one in Kentucky.


Robert McBride, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, said there has been only one instance under which the provisions of the act has been applied since signed into law two years ago, and it still is not clear whether that case involves actual terrorist activities by the suspects. McBride said the case is in the Western District of the state; he said no cases have been investigated or prosecuted in the Eastern District, which encompasses Boyle and the four other area counties.

The case under investigation involves an ancient Arab form of exchanging money, McBride said. Because the amounts of money were fairly large, and those involved were Arabs, red flags were raised, he said. However, U.S. attorneys are trying to determine if the exchange was at least some indirect effort to raise money for terrorist acts, an effort to evade taxes or anything criminal or terrorist at all.

McBride and Timothy Edgar, a legislative counsel in the Washington, D.C., National Office of the ACLU, discussed the Patriot Act and the overall debate over national security and civil liberties post-Sept. 11, 2001, before some 150 students, faculty and Danville residents in Young Hall at a forum arranged and hosted by Dr. Dan Stroup, a professor of government at Centre.

Both Edgar and McBride indicated there was a lot more agreement between civil libertarians and the government than the media have conveyed.

"There is a lot more common ground between the ACLU and others who are concerned about the act's effects on our civil liberties and the U.S. Justice Department and those trying to catch terrorists," said Edgar. "It's a very complicated act, but the discussion and debate over it has been reduced to sound bites. In fact, we accept and, in many cases, approve several provisions."

There are some areas of disagreement

But there are some areas of disagreement, according to Edgar and McBride. "Problem areas," said Edgar, include the following:

* The act allows "sneak and peek" searches of a person's home or office without having to notify the person.

"The government can go into someone's home or business and don't have to notify that person till later, much later," Edgar said. "The government says it typically will make a notification after seven days, but there really is no set time frame."

In addition, warrants are "too vague" as investigators only have to suggest that the activity they are investigating may be connected to terrorist activity, he said. "There is not probable cause. The standard is reasonable suspicion or less," he said.

McBride agreed that, just after the act was implemented, the time frame in which suspects were notified varied from one district to another, but he said that the Justice Department then asked for a more uniform notification time period.

"The average has been seven days," he said.

* The special court in Washington which issues warrants and handles other actions related to the act is "too secret."

"The act reflects the fact that there is secrecy from the top down (in the Bush administration)," said Edgar. "(Attorney General John) Ashcroft has set the tone with his refusal to respond in full and in a timely fashion to questions from Congress about the act."

That "tone," in turn, is reflected by the "increasing degree of secrecy shrouding investigations and the special tribunal that handles the Patriot Act and warrants obtained under it," he said.

McBride replied that the court is secret but should be trusted to do a "fair and honest job" because those sitting on it are respected and veteran U.S. District judges from around the Eastern part of the U.S. and represent a wide range of judicial and political philosophies.

He said the fact that the court has approved a vast majority of the warrants sought by U.S. attorneys is an indication that the attorneys are doing a good job in collecting evidence and conducting investigations that meet the standards of the act.

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