Thursday, September 8, 2005

Locals divided on Patriot Act

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Sep 8, 2005): Local residents are torn about the expansion of the USA PATRIOT Act, with some worried about government invasion of privacy, while others want the act expanded to provide more security against terrorism.

At a forum on the issue last week, Pauline Levin of Scarborough noted media reports “that abuses have occurred” under the provisions of the law, enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, to help federal agents fight terrorism.

But Arline Neumann, also of Scarborough, said she wants police powers extended. “I feel the Patriot Act protects me to stay alive,” she said at the forum, held at the Scarborough Public Library.

The law’s official name is an acronym standing for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” but it is often referred to simply as the “Patriot Act.”

The lead federal prosecutor in Maine, Paula Silsby, defended the law as something that provides police and investigators with "tools (that) facilitate the prosecutors' job" and are "necessary" to protect the public.

Several provisions are up for renewal by Congress this fall, which has led to a national debate on how much privacy people are willing to give up in exchange for a measure of security.

One controversial provision up for reconsideration allows federal agents to demand copies of records of books people have borrowed from libraries or purchased at bookstores, and, under some circumstances, to force library or store officials to remain silent about the demand forever.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said her group agrees government should have tools to protect the public. “Our concern is the expansion” of investigative powers and restrictions on public knowledge or judicial oversight of the process, she said.

That “increases our necessity to trust government officials,” which is not always a good idea in a democracy, she said.

Librarians have also been concerned, with Wendy Miller of the Maine Library Association noting that America has a strong tradition of intellectual freedom.

In response to a question from Patricia Doyle, a resident of Westchester County, N.Y., who was visiting Levin, Miller said she would not report to police a person who asked her for a book on how to make bombs.

Shortly after 9/11, a man asked Miller for help finding books on Iraq and Pakistan, she said. She felt nervous initially, but then dismissed it as her own reaction because of the timing of the request. He wasn’t doing anything illegal, she said. “He’s just looking for information.”

The very fact that a man’s search for books on a particular topic worried Anne Altern, a South Portland resident born in Norway.

“In this country, you can buy a gun and no record is kept. … You can go to a library and check out a book and the record is always there,” she said.

Scarborough resident Jack Kelley said the danger is real, despite a “philosophy of privacy” that pervades American culture.

Drawing a distinction between day-to-day crimes and terrorism, Kelley said “failure to prevent a crime can result in somebody’s death” but failure to prevent an act of terrorism could result in destruction of a city.

Neumann said she didn’t mind if the government wanted to look at her book-borrowing records. “Before 9/11 I would have cared,” but now she does not, she said.

Most people in the room, whether they supported or opposed parts of the Patriot Act, said they believed there are terrorists “out there” who want to harm American citizens, and are using the Internet – freely and anonymously available in many libraries – as one tool in their efforts.

Bellows said her group’s concerns include ensuring the government doesn’t “waste taxpayer dollars” investigating peaceful groups. She noted that the FBI recently released 1,000 pages documenting investigation and surveillance of the American Civil Liberties Union, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU.

Silsby said the Patriot Act strikes a “balance” between freedom and safety. “I think we all agree that we have to remain safe in order to be free,” she said.

Neumann noted that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed “Atta looked like an average American businessman carrying a briefcase.” A search of his clothes or his luggage would have turned up nothing, she said. “He used the plane as his weapon.”