AFTER NEARLY four years, the debate over the Patriot Act is coming to a head. Despite broad public concern, some in Congress and the administration are rushing to make the entire Patriot Act permanent and to expand the broad authority it gave federal agents to seize private records - such as those held by doctors, hotels and libraries - without proper court review or probable cause.
By all accounts, Congress is set to take up Patriot Act reauthorization well before the Dec. 31 deadline when some of the most troubling powers are set to expire. Committee action has already begun, much of it behind closed doors. It seems increasingly likely that, for political reasons, a final measure could go to the floor for debate and vote by the full Congress as early as the end of the month and that President Bush will be poised to sign a bill on or before Sept. 11.
Without hyperbole, the Patriot Act is the single most important domestic civil liberties issue of the past two decades. Not only is it an extremely broad expansion of federal secret search and surveillance authority, but it also represents a growing sense among some at the highest levels of government that our laws and constitutional traditions are somehow malleable at their say-so.
If it is made permanent and expanded, this sensibility will become even more entrenched, and the erosion of checks and balances necessary to protect our fundamental rights as free people will become even more pronounced.
Here's the worst part of what the Patriot Act does to our privacy and our constitutional system of checks and balances:
Section 213 expands the government's ability to conduct secret searches. Agents can break into your home using a "sneak and peek" court warrant, rifle through your things, download computer files, take DNA samples and even seize property - without telling you for an indefinite period. The Justice Department has trumpeted the fact that since 9/11 it has routinely used these extraordinary powers not against terrorists, but against run-of-the-mill criminals.
Section 215 gives the government the power to use top-secret spy-hunting tools against regular Americans without probable cause or specific facts connecting the records sought to a foreign agent. It allows the FBI to obtain orders from a secret court in Washington to seize records from doctors, libraries, hotels or any other institution that keeps records on our health, wealth and other transactions of daily life. The recipient of one of these orders is barred from telling anyone about it.
As if that were not bad enough, a few of our elected representatives seem poised to rush through a bill to make the Patriot Act permanent and to expand government power by giving FBI agents the ability to execute what are essentially fishing-expedition subpoenas. These would allow the government to get at all the records a 215 order could access, but without any prior approval by a judge.
As freedom-loving citizens, we have our work cut out for us in the fight to preserve checks and balances in the "war" on terrorism. Fortunately, there is broad public concern across the political spectrum. Seven states and more than 375 communities have passed resolutions calling for Patriot Act reform.
Prominent conservative activists, including Grover Norquist and David Keene, are unqualified in their support for bringing the Patriot Act back in line with the Constitution. Indeed, they are so supportive of changing the law that they formed Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, chaired by former Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, to do just that.
We have an opportunity in the days ahead to write another chapter in the history of America. Congress has its pen out and the clock is ticking. As citizens, we should demand a more favorable outcome for civil liberties this time around.
Susan Goering is the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.