Last October, agents from the FBI and Treasury Department, accompanied by a gaggle of TV news crews, raided the Columbia, Mo., offices of a small charity called the Islamic-American Relief Agency (IARA). Computers and records were seized, and several hundred thousand dollars in donated funds destined for relief work in Kenya were frozen. There were no arrests or charges, though federal agents visited the homes of many of the charity’s local donors. IARA, according to its attorney, Shereef Akeel, was effectively shut down under a little-known provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, which expanded the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to allow the government to freeze the assets of organizations while it investigates for links to terrorism.
“The government has not presented one shred of evidence linking IARA to funding for terror, but by seizing their funds and interviewing their donors, they have effectively destroyed the charity and created a chilling effect in the Muslim community in Columbia,” Akeel says. He suggests the government may have confused IARA, founded two decades ago as the Islamic African Relief Agency (the name changed during the Bosnia conflict when demands for aid moved beyond an African focus), with a Sudan-based charity called the Islamic African Relief Agency, which the government claims has links to terrorists.
The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, signed into law six weeks after the 9/11 attacks with no congressional debate, faces review in Congress, as 16 of its provisions “sunset” at the end of the year.
Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances (PRCB), an unusual right/left coalition that includes the ACLU, the American Conservative Union and the Free Congress Foundation, is pressing to end some of the act’s particularly egregious civil liberties abuses – specifically, the sneak-and-peek provision, which allows the government to spy on people without notifying them or obtaining a court order, and the library provision, which grants federal authorities the power to inspect library, video, and bookstore user records without a warrant, and which bars librarians and store owners from alerting customers.
ACLU national security lobbyist Lisa Graves says the coalition is optimistic about winning some improvements. “Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) held a ‘critics’ hearing last week,” says Graves, “which the last chair, Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah) would never have done, and in the House, Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) has expressed some ‘concerns’ about the act.” The nationwide grassroots movement, which has seen 383 communities, including seven states, pass anti-Patriot Act resolutions, has also put pressure on Congress to amend the law.
“I’m guessing the reforms we want in the act could gain some traction,” says Steve Lilienthal, director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative member of the coalition. “It will be an uphill battle, but I think we may win.”
Not everyone, however, is happy with the notion of reforming the law.
“There’s a danger in trying to fix it,” argues Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has not joined the coalition. “I’m afraid by working to fix problems with a few provisions that have gotten attention – the library provision and sneak-and-peek – the focus is taken off of the really serious threats to freedom, both in the Patriot Act and outside it.
“Things like the broadened definition of terror, which can include blocking a highway during a demonstration, or the enhancement of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which now allows the government to spy on ordinary criminal suspects without showing probable cause or obtaining a warrant, are horrible,” says Ratner. “Whole Islamic communities in the U.S. now live in terror and fear. It’s much worse than the spying on CISPES [Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador] in the ‘80s.
“Just because 9/11 happened, doesn’t mean you need new laws, ” Ratner says. “The government should have to prove why current laws and powers don’t work. It should have to justify each new power given to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. On some things, you have to stand on principle and not compromise.”
Graves concedes that Ratner may have a point. “The 9/11 Commission had a similar perspective,” she says. “One of their recommendations was that the administration should have the burden of proof for any change in the laws that affect civil liberties.” But Graves says that the coalition’s – and ACLU’s – view is that by joining right and left, they can win at least some improvements, while repealing the PATRIOT Act is not politically possible – at least for now.
Meanwhile, Akeel and the IARA, taking matters in their own hands, have sued in federal court in Washington, D.C., to unblock the charity’s funds. “I’ve been getting letters from little kids in Kenya begging for me to restore the money that was being sent to support them,” says Akeel.