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Antiterrorism elements of PATRIOT Act gives press advocates pause

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 31, 2001    

Antiterrorism elements of PATRIOT Act gives press advocates pause

  • The American Civil Liberties Union and journalists said the new law grants government officials unprecedented powers that could stifle newsgathering efforts during the nation’s war on terrorism.

With much fanfare, President Bush signed into law last week sweeping new enforcement powers designed to investigate terrorism stateside.

But press advocates claim the USA PATRIOT Act — or more formally, the Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, likely would stifle the efforts of journalists to gather information about the nation’s war on terrorism.

“The fact of the matter is, we have seen that the Justice Department can be pretty heavy-handed when they go after journalists’ materials,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. “We can assume journalists’ work will be impacted by these new laws.”

Congress and President Bush placed the PATRIOT Act on the fast track after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The House passed the antiterrorism bill on Oct. 24 with a vote of 357 to 66, while the Senate adopted the legislation the next day with a 98-to-1 vote.

Civil libertarians criticized the swift passage, noting that the legislation surfaced amid heightened patriotic emotions and with little debate. The House offered the measure its only hearing.

Bush signed the legislation into law on Oct. 26. The law grants the government considerable powers in investigating possible terrorists using wiretaps and Internet searches. Attorney General John Ashcroft promised to use the new powers extensively.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, lobbied aggressively against the bill, claiming it would grant enormous, unwarranted power to the executive branch unchecked by meaningful judicial review. Most of the new powers, the ACLU said, could be used against American citizens in routine criminal investigations completely unrelated to terrorism.

ACLU President Nadine Strossen said the act could even target journalists, particularly those drafting dissenting editorials, if Ashcroft’s office considered them to be terrorist in nature.

Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the new law bolsters a climate of security over freedom. He said Ashcroft’s role in jailing Vanessa Leggett for not turning notes over to federal prosecutors and the seizure of an AP reporter’s phone records raises concerns that the new law will greatly affect journalists.

Cross, too, said that Ashcroft’s Oct. 12 memorandum promising support to agencies that deny FOI Act requests shows an administration unfriendly to journalists.

McMasters agreed.

“I think we can assume that the First Amendment rights of journalists are not a high priority with the Justice Department,” McMasters said. “With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that journalists’ work wouldn’t be scooped up by this rather broad net.”

(H.R. 3162) PT

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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