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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

EXCLUSIVE Corked Bats Interview with Chip Pitts, Part One

Chip Pitts is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA. You can read more about him here. In this portion of the interview, Pitts addresses Sensenbrenner's specific call to produce a list of librarians who have been investigated under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and then goes into more detail about the extent of PATRIOT Act usage since 9-11. Sensenbrenner shut down the hearing in part because he claimed that the PATRIOT Act was not being abused or used in the manner in which critics charge. In the following exchange, Pitts talks about both potential uses of the PATRIOT Act--which he argues have a chilling effect on the Bill of Rights--and actual uses since its passage.

Thank you to Mr. Pitts for answering these questions so that we may all have a better idea of what, exactly, critics of the PATRIOT Act are saying and why they are saying it. It should also be noted that Amnesty International is a non-partisan organization. Mr. Pitts is not answering these questions in order to provide partisan ammunition--these are his views as an expert on human rights worldwide. I conducted this interview in order to understand more completely the issues that the PATRIOT Act does and does not raise. I appreciate the time he has taken to help us learn.

Without further ado, here is the first part:

Umpire: House Judiciary Chairman Sensenbrenner addressed you specifically at the June 10th hearing that he cut short and asked Amnesty to produce a list of librarians who have been met with Section 215 investigations. What is the status of that list now?

Chip Pitts, Chair of the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA: I plan to respond to the Chairman's request by the deadline he set -- but not in a way that would subject librarians to invasion of their human rights or subject them to prosecution.

Umpire: As a follow-up, how much and in what ways has the PATRIOT Act actually been used since its passage?

Pitts: The overbroad provisions of the Patriot Act infringe the bulk of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, for example by criminalizing acts that could be peaceful dissent (in section 802's broad and vague definition of terrorism), by allowing invasion of the right to read (as with section 215's lowering the standard for search warrants, purporting to eliminate the constitutionally required probable cause otherwise protecting our privacy and due process of law, merely upon approval by the secret FISA court, which has no discretion to turn down the request, and about which no one can tell or be told under the gag order), by allowing 'sneak and peek' secretive home searches (authorized in section 213), and by allowing rolling, potentially indefinite detention on the subjective say-so of just one man, the US Attorney General (under section 412).

The mere existence of such provisions thus chills fundamental rights, including under the first amendment (freedom of speech, assembly, religion, press), fourth amendment (privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures), fifth amendment (presumption of innocence and due process of law), sixth amendment (right to confront witnesses against you and the right to counsel), seventh amendment (right to trial by jury), and the ninth and tenth amendments (which preserve unenumerated rights to the people and states, respectively).

The exact number of abuses remains unknown and unknowable, because of the veil of secrecy and gag orders scattered throughout the Patriot Act -- but some have come to light. In addition to the many reports of individual cases that Amnesty, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the ACLU, and others have received, notable cases of abuse include that of Brandon Mayfield, the Oregon attorney who was surveilled and had his home searched using the powers of the Patriot Act before he was unjustifiably detained under an abuse of the material witness statute, and Sami al-Hussayen, the student who was accused of "material support" of terrorists merely for posting publicly available materials on his website. Both of these individuals were innocent, and subsequently vindicated.

Moreover, the Patriot Act's broad powers need not be formally invoked in order for government to effectively exercise these broad new powers. Librarians receiving law enforcement requests now know of the new provisions subjecting them to criminal penalties for noncompliance, just as the thousands of Muslims, Arabs, and others mistaken for them rounded up after 9/11 were not formally rounded up under section 412 of the Patriot Act, but under similar authorities unilaterally assumed by Attorney General Ashcroft immediately after 9/11.

The Patriot Act was "sold" to Congress as an anti-terrorist measure. But in a blatant example of 'mission creep', the Patriot Act (as well reported in the mainstream press) has been overwhelmingly used for domestic criminal enforcement, like drug cases and credit card fraud, unrelated to terrorism.

All Americans should thus be concerned that founding principles of our democratic republic -- like limited government, checks and balances, separation of powers, independent judiciary, due process, equal protection, and individual liberty -- are under threat as never before in our lifetimes. In the context of a never-ending 'war on terror,' the negative impact on our core values and very national identity could be permanent as well.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

[UPDATE: The House voted today to limit some of the library provisions in the PATRIOT Act today. Story here.]

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