Nearly three years after its passage, feelings about the USA Patriot Act remain strong.
Supporters, largely members of the law enforcement community, say its provisions are vital in the fight against terrorism. Critics believe certain provisions jeopardize too much in the way of civil liberties.
Utahns on each side of the aisle had a chance to voice those opinions Wednesday to Sen. Orrin Hatch, a principal author of the controversial anti-terrorism legislation. Hatch, R-Utah, hosted a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the University of Utah to examine the Patriot Act and other federal laws being used in the fight against terrorism.
At the outset of the congressional hearing, Hatch said he was especially interested in hearing from witnesses "details of any specific abuses" of the act.
"Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric regarding our nation's anti-terrorism laws appears based on misinformation and unjust speculation," Hatch said. "Additionally, some critics have tried to divert attention to those leading the implementation and review of these laws . . . rather than making specific, documented critiques of these laws and how they believe these laws have been enforced."
Wednesday's hearing was the fourth of its kind and the first held outside the nation's capital. In a morning media briefing, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey said the hearings are meant to encourage Americans to "stop and learn the details of the Patriot Act, because when they do they will learn that it is incredibly simple, incredibly important and overdue."
Six of the 10 witnesses who testified Wednesday, however, expressed concerns with specific provisions of the Patriot Act considered to threaten the civil liberties and privacy rights of ordinary Americans.
Panel members — an unusual alliance of conservative and liberal organizations — urged a closer look at questionable provisions of the Patriot Act, specifically those that authorize roving wiretaps and so-called "sneak and peek" search warrants, as well as consideration of a bill intended to modify the most controversial portions of the act.
"We ask you to support the Safe Act to add oversight and review to the Patriot Act to provide the appropriate protection for innocent Americans from unrestricted government surveillance," said Nanette Benowitz, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah.
Passage of the Safe Act would restore much-needed checks and balances and ensure the Patriot Act would be used solely in terrorism cases, said Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. As it now stands, she said, the act's powers can be used in all types of government investigations.
"Utahns have a strong tradition of skepticism for governmental power, especially surveillance power," Eyer said, citing the state's recent extraction from MATRIX, a nationwide data-sharing program intended to help fight terrorism.
Additional concerns, voiced by both former assistant Utah attorney general Frank Mylar and Bruce Cohne, of the Utah Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, included fear of how the act would be used under future presidential administrations. The law could conceivably make terrorists out of outspoken members of pro-life organizations or gun-rights advocates, Cohne said.
Despite the criticism, top law enforcers testified Wednesday the Patriot Act offers necessary tools to safeguard American citizens.
Comey said the act has made Americans "immeasurably safer" by removing communication barriers between intelligence gatherers and criminal investigators. Further, he said, the legislation has extended for wider use tools available for decades in fighting organized crime, pornography and the war on drugs.
"When you know how I'm using this, you're going to want me to have these tools," Comey said.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner noted that the potential for abuses under the act are lowered by close monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress and the courts.
"I am personally much more fearful of unchecked terrorism in America, for a lack of tools to fight it, than I fear the potential abuse of the law by federal agents and prosecutors we have entrusted with these tools," Warner said.
Unless reauthorized by Congress, portions of the Patriot Act will expire in October 2005. Such a move, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers said, would be detrimental.
"I understand the debate. It's a good one and it needs to be heard," he said. "But if the Patriot Act is not reinstated, I can't imagine what would happen to us."