By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Pacific News Service
Two months before the Iowa Caucus, John Kerry tore a big page from the ACLU’s play-book and lambasted the Patriot Act as snooping and intrusive a bad law that should be repealed. Kerry then was a stuckin-mid-pack centrist, a Democratic presidential hopeful whose candidacy had garnered little public enthusiasm or political traction. He could afford to let fly at anything Bush favored or said. Not anymore, and now he thinks he must watch what he says about the Patriot Act.
When Kerry won the Iowa caucus and in the next couple of months racked up big wins in most of the other Democratic primaries, he ceased being a mid-pack candidate and became the presumptive Democratic presidential contender. With the public, media and Republicans now scrutinizing his every word and action, Kerry has had to act and talk like a Democratic front-runner on the issues. The Patriot Act is one of them.
Kerry quickly dropped his ACLU-sounding rant against it, saying it should be improved, not scrapped. Kerry made his volte face for a good reason. Despite President Bush’s Iraq woes and public battering for his alleged 9/11 intelligence blunders, terrorism is still his big political trump card.
The Patriot Act is the one thing that the public identifies as his handiwork. A February Gallop/CNN/USA Today poll found overwhelming public backing for the act. One in four even said the act didn’t go far enough. Presumably that meant they were willing to give FBI agents even more power to spy on political groups, plant agents in churches and mosques, ransack the Internet for potential subversives, and indefinitely detain anyone suspected of terrorist links without formal charges against them.
Former Bush counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, and the parade of witnesses that testified before the 9/11 Commission, fanned public fears that terrorism is still a major threat in the United States and the government should do more, not less, to combat it. While Clarke racked up big headlines skewering National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice for fumbling the intelligence ball, polls still showed that this had almost no negative affect on Bush’s ratings on terrorism.
An April poll by the Pew Research Center found that Bush’s ratings had actually jumped. Though the Patriot Act’s provisions don’t expire until 2005, Bush has used it as a political litmus test in the war against terrorism. Any politician who waffles on supporting the act’s renewal or, worse, says it should be weakened risks being branded as soft on terrorism. That could be the kiss of death for a politician today, the equivalent of being “soft on crime” a few years ago.
Bill Clinton has sternly warned the Democrats they must seize national security and defense issues from the Republicans. That means they should do and say nothing that stirs public doubt on their capacity to wage war on terrorism.
Unfortunately, a tip-off that the Democrats would tread gingerly around the Patriot Act came last year when the Center for Public Integrity leaked a report claiming that Justice Department officials proposed radically revising the Act. The Justice Department reportedly wants to give even more spy powers to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a “disfavored political group” (the Justice Department and the FBI would have the say-so over who and what those groups are).
A handful of Democrats made muffled noises about the threats to civil liberties these revisions posed, but the controversy quickly died.
The 9/11 Commission almost certainly will make tough recommendations to strengthen the government’s legal and intelligence arsenals. And since the panel has made it clear that it won’t beat up on Bush for his alleged intelligence bumbles, those recommendations could help, not hurt, him by reinforcing his oft-repeated charge that terrorism is the paramount threat to Americans.
But that doesn’t mean that Kerry or the Democrats should bow to political expediency and soft-pedal their opposition to the Patriot Act’s potential abuses. They must find a way to stand fast against dangerous provisions while offering precise legal and intelligence weapons against terrorism.
Surely, provisions that require public agencies to hand over personal records and permit secret search and seizures of private homes threaten to stifle individual liberties more than defend them. Certainly, there is no need to allow the use of surveillance, wiretaps and Internet searches in criminal cases that have nothing to do with terrorism investigations. In fact, a recent study found that the hundreds of terrorism-related cases pursued by the Justice Department did not net any significant results.
Bush says he will speak in support of renewing and strengthening the Patriot Act every chance he gets. Kerry should speak out loudly about it too, but as sharp-eyed critic, not a cheerleader.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a writer and political analyst whose writings appear on www.thehutchinsonreport.com. Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).