Daily Breeze

September 26, 2003

Harmon Opposes Patriot Act Extension

By TOBY ECKERT
Copley News Service

      WASHINGTON -- A proposal to give federal investigators broad new authority to obtain information in terrorism cases is ""dangerous'' and it would be premature for Congress to expand the controversial anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday.

      ""I want to know how it's been working, correct its flaws, before we do anything else,'' said Harman, D-El Segundo. ""What I do not like about the new proposals that (Attorney General John) Ashcroft is making is to take the courts out. It has, as I understand it, an unfettered executive authority which is something I believe is dangerous.''

      Harman was referring to a proposal, outlined recently by President Bush, that would allow federal agencies to issue ""administrative subpoenas'' for a wide array of information in terrorism investigations, without approval by a judge or grand jury.

      Bush also proposed expanded authority to hold suspects without bail and to seek the death penalty in more cases, saying current laws pose ""unreasonable obstacles to investigating and prosecuting terrorism.''

      His proposal came amid growing criticism of the Patriot Act, which was hurriedly passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks to give the FBI and other federal agencies new powers to investigate and detain suspected terrorists. Civil liberties activists, librarians, book sellers and a growing number of lawmakers say the law is a threat to privacy, free speech and other rights.

      Bush administration officials counter that the law contains numerous safeguard against abuse and that opponents are exaggerating its reach.

      Harman, speaking at a non-partisan forum on homeland security and in a brief interview afterward, did not single out anything in the current law for criticism.

      ""I do believe that modernizing old law was necessary. And I supported Patriot One,'' she said. ""I didn't support it because it was perfect. It wasn't. But Congress made a massive effort to ensure that there would be court review of these expanded authorities. We have to see how that's working.''

      ""I don't support taking courts out of the process, period.... But I do support course corrections and making modernized law work better to accomplish the goals,'' she added.

      Harman raised some concerns about the federal government's new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a clearinghouse for intelligence information.

      ""I think there were some good reasons to set up that agency, but those regulations contain no protection for civil liberties,'' she said. ""Protecting civil liberties must be an integral part of any homeland security strategy and is not something that can be tacked on as an afterthought.''

      She has advocated legislation that would establish an advisory council on privacy and civil liberties for the center.

      Comprehensive ""watch lists'' and other systems meant to profile and identify potential terrorists need ""to be designed carefully,'' Harman added.

      ""Controls have to be part of this and the access to the information and the targeting of the information has to be carefully thought through on the front end,'' she said. ""Many fear that the profile will miss terrorists and instead catch or inconvenience too many non-terrorists. It's a huge concern. They're right.''

      Nuala O'Conner Kelly, chief privacy officer at the Homeland Security Department, said safeguards are working at that agency.

      ""Our framework is second to none, although far harder to explain than a simple single privacy statute. We have several dozen statutes that protect privacy of financial information, of health information, of children's information,'' she said.

      <9/25/03>