Strange Bedfellows

What the ACLU and the NRA have in common

Matt Larson

America’s love affair with the homeland security state is getting a little rocky. Republican Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho proposed an amendment to this year’s Commerce, Justice, and State funding bill that would order law enforcement agencies to stop using delayed-notification search warrants, one of the dubious measures enshrined in the Patriot Act of 2001. The amendment passed the House on July 22 by a vote of 309-118, with 113 Republicans voting in favor. A similar measure has yet to face a Senate vote, and it’s anybody’s guess whether the change would survive a presidential veto, but the Otter Amendment signals a clear direction in the nation’s mood.

The amendment seems to follow the lead of a growing grassroots movement on both the left and right opposing the Patriot Act and the so-called Patriot Act II. (The latter has not been introduced in Congress yet, but a Justice Department document outlining provisions for a new bill was leaked on February 7, causing much alarm among defenders of civil liberties.)

Backlash against the Patriot legislation has created a fantasyland of political concord: Gun Owners of America nodding in agreement with the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the Green Party happily concurring. Organizations across the political spectrum, from village councils to national advocacy groups, are going on record opposing this newest potential assault on Americans’ civil liberties.

According to the 120-page Patriot II document, any suspected terrorist’s DNA would be entered into a database, even if that person had not been convicted of a crime. It also evokes memories of the infamous Operation TIPS, a program that aimed to recruit businesses and citizens to provide information on suspected terrorists, as it would relieve informers from liability if they make false claims. “It provides a legal framework for people to spy and rat on neighbors,” says Tim Edgar, a legislative counsel with the ACLU.

Patriot II would also make it legal for the government to refuse to identify, even to family members, any detainees it is holding without charges. And Patriot II would likely contain no sunset clause, unlike the original Patriot Act, which had a five-year sunset clause. If Patriot II is passed, it could be here to stay.

The first Patriot Act was whisked through Congress in the chaos following 9/11, leaving little time for organizations to educate people about the dangers posed by the legislation.

“There was no education before the law was passed,” says Rasheed Ahmed, president of the Muslim Civil Rights Center in Chicago, which has helped to organize educational forums throughout the city. “Its’ impact is a culture of secret trials, secret evidence, secret deportations, and secret law enforcement. There is no congressional oversight.”

Despite slow beginnings, public concern over the original Patriot Act is on the rise, as local and state governments, along with other organizations, have gone on record opposing the act. More recent resolutions have also included Patriot II. According to the ACLU, 143 communities have passed such resolutions in 27 states, representing almost 17 million people. In addition, the legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont have similarly voiced their opposition. In Alaska’s Republican-controlled legislature, the resolution garnered only one vote against it.

After 9/11, citizens of Provincetown, Massachusetts, formed the Lower Cape Cod Peace and Justice Circle, with the mission of educating the local community about international and domestic events. In April, the group drew up a resolution against the Patriot Act and took it to a town meeting expecting the worst. “We expected a floor fight, and the thing passed without much discussion,” says John Hopkins, one of the group’s organizers. “We were in shock.” The resolution was one of the first of its kind on Cape Cod, and touched off a flurry of similar proclamations in surrounding towns.

Organizers are hoping that such resolutions will serve as building blocks of public opposition to the Patriot II Act.

“It’s a concern shared across the board from right to left,” says Damon Moglen of the ACLU. “You’ve got the NAACP working with the ACLU working with the NRA.”

The ACLU has taken the reins of the grassroots movement with its Safe and Free Campaign to combat the Patriot Act and Patriot II, but other groups like the League of Women Voters and Neighbors for Peace have done their part to spread the word about the Patriot II.

The Idaho Green Party launched the Paul Revere Project and is compiling an e-mail list to inform people about the status of Patriot II legislation, along with other pertinent alerts. Prominent conservatives have spoken out against the acts as well, including former NRA vice president Wayne Anthony Ross and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

Gun Owners of America, based in Springfield, Virginia, posted an editorial opposing Patriot II on its Web site. “When I feel the heat I see the light,” says director of communications Erich Pratt. “There’s something in here to offend everybody, and I think that’s why you see such a wide coalition of diverse groups.”

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