Tacoma Congressman Adam Smith got a heap of abuse back home after he sided with the Bush administration last week to block proposed changes to the USA Patriot Act one of just four Democrats to do so.
Now Smith says he may have made a mistake in voting against an amendment that would have barred authorities from using the controversial law to get records of library patrons, Internet users and book buyers.
The amendment failed on a 210-210 vote Thursday.
"It is quite possible that I looked at it incorrectly," Smith told more than a dozen civil libertarians and Democrats during a teleconference Monday evening.
Smith had organized the call to defend his stance but wound up apologizing and saying he would take a closer look at the law the next time it came up for a vote. Asked afterward whether he wished he could change his vote, Smith said, "Yes, in all likelihood."
His chief of staff, Ali Wade, confirmed yesterday that Smith now "believes he should have voted the other way."
It was not clear whether Smith's vote would have changed the outcome last week. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, appeared to be passing 219-201 at one point. But Republican leaders extended the scheduled 15 minutes allowed for the vote until they had convinced enough Republicans to switch sides.
During his phone conversation Monday, Smith said that when he voted he had relied on information from nonpartisan congressional researchers.
He also said he had followed the lead of California Congresswoman Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Smith said he'd known about the vote less than an hour before it occurred.
That only riled Smith's critics. "At one point do you take responsibility for your vote?" demanded one woman during the telephone call.
But Jerry Sheehan, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, stepped in to defend Smith, saying Smith had voted with the ACLU more often than not, and that some of the Patriot Act's provisions are difficult to understand.
"No one should be faulted for being uncertain or incorrect," he said. "It is a very, very complex thing."
Smith received a 64 percent rating from the ACLU for votes in 2001-2002, according to Project Vote Smart.
Smith said he thought the Patriot Act required the Justice Department to get a warrant or demonstrate probable cause before gathering sensitive information, such as library records, as part of a terrorism investigation. But after listening to Sheehan and others, Smith said he may have been misled.
"I get a lot of bad information," he said. Smith pledged to "work very, very hard" to inform himself before parts of the Patriot Act come up for renewal next year.
But even as Smith was roughed up by civil libertarians, U.S. Attorney John McKay yesterday praised the Tacoma Democrat and said he shouldn't change his mind.
"I surely commend him," McKay said. "I think that his analysis of the Patriot Act and its importance is right on."
Congress passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It broadened the government's powers to conduct investigations and detain people.
The law has become a lightning rod for critics who say it went too far in expanding the government's powers to snoop on citizens.
McKay called much of the uproar over the anti-terrorism law "hugely overblown" and said he was unaware of any attempt to obtain library or bookstore records under its provisions in Washington state.
The section of the law targeted by the Sanders amendment allows the Justice Department to obtain such records with the approval of a special court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The 11-member court operates largely in secret.
In an interview, Smith said he was now worried the law's standards for seizing records are too loose.
But McKay said the judges on the special court offer plenty of protection from overzealous law enforcement. "Although some claim they are potted plants, they are not," McKay said of the federal judges who sit on the court.
The law also specifies that no one can be investigated solely on the basis of religious or political activities protected by the First Amendment.
McKay admitted the Patriot Act allows the government to more easily gather information on people who have not necessarily committed a crime. But he said such tradeoffs are necessary to prevent more terrorist attacks.
"We are in an active war on terror, we have active cases. They are legitimately connected to al-Qaida. There is no question about it," McKay said.
While nearly all Democrats voted for the amendment, the party leadership did not instruct them on the vote, said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"It wasn't a leadership vote that was whipped [polled]. We had a pretty good sense of where people were," Crider said.
Smith, co-chairman of the John Kerry campaign in Washington state, has represented South Puget Sound's 9th Congressional District since 1997 and is running unopposed for re-election to a fifth term this year.
He is regarded as a centrist Democrat and is co-chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, which describes itself as a group of centrist, pro-growth House members working for bipartisan solutions.
During the teleconference, Smith repeatedly asked the callers not to judge his record based on this one vote.
"I absolutely do not support [Attorney General] John Ashcroft, do not support Bush and their record," he said.
© Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company