Playing it SAFE
Colleen Connell, a longtime litigator and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, came to Springfield last week to in effect prosecute the Bush administration for using the U.S.A. Patriot Act to take away Americans’ constitutional freedoms.
“The administration has not met yet its burden of showing how it is that the Patriot Act has made us safer such that we should continue to tolerate the incursions on civil liberties,” Connell told the lunchtime crowd Wednesday, July 13, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
An example of these incursions, Connell said, was law-enforcement officials’ use, and abuse, of NSLs — national-security letters — to demand private information on citizens. Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a law-enforcement official may show up at a public library with an NSL and demand a patron’s Internet or lending records.
Unless Congress intervenes, section 215 and other controversial parts of the Patriot Act are set to expire on Dec. 31.
Though the event wasn’t billed as a public debate, Connell ended up defending her claims to assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Chesley, an audience member who was eager to contest every point in the ACLU director’s case against the Patriot Act.
“Every conversation I’ve had with the ACLU, they want to talk about everything but the Patriot Act,” Chesley later told Illinois Times. “NSLs are not related to the Patriot Act.”
“ ‘Sneak and peek’ warrants existed before the Patriot Act,” Chesley says. Investigators have the duty and the right to gather information, he says, but must try to strike a balance between collecting the data needed to perform an investigation and the duty of government to protect citizens.
The ACLU would love nothing more than to see these provisions of the Patriot Act disappear. Failing that, the civil-liberties organization is backing an alternative, the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation co-authored by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
Connell told the Center for the Arts audience that the SAFE Act would add congressional and judicial oversight that the Patriot Act lacks to domestic intelligence-gathering activities of law-enforcement agencies.
“As a practicing lawyer, I’m really hard pressed to identify why this notion of judicial review, which is an important part of the constitutional system of checks and balances, is so offensive to this administration, because the federal courts have been very, very reliable allies in law enforcement in general and the war on terror in particular,” Connell said.
Chesley, who says he attended the meeting of his own volition, objected to the ACLU’s premise:
“You make it sound like there’s no oversight at all with a 215. Specifically, every six months Congress reviews every 215 order that’s issued and checks it out, and they’ve been doing that ever since the Patriot Act was enacted. They haven’t come back to the Department of Justice and said, ‘Hey, you’re doing it wrong.’ ”
Connell countered: “The point of this is not to say that all law enforcement is bad because, clearly, it’s not. We all want to be safe.”
She continued: “We all care about the law being enforced. In fact, I would be so bold as to submit that the one thing that might tie us all together as Americans, given our incredibly rich and diverse ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, is our joint commitment and allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law.
“And when government breaks that rule of law, that completely unravels the threads of civil society and our social contract with each other and the government.”