The most underreported political story of recent years has been that of the grass-roots revolt against the Patriot Act.
In an unprecedented show of opposition to the Bush administration's assaults on basic liberties, five states and 372 counties, cities, villages and towns have passed resolutions, ordinances or ballot initiatives condemning the law created by Constitution-crushing former Attorney General John Ashcroft and expressing their commitment to the values expressed in the Bill of Rights.
The outcry against the Patriot Act runs the ideological gamut, as is evidenced by the fact that the objections have come from both red states (Alaska, Arizona and Montana) and blue (Hawaii and Vermont), and from communities as diverse as Boise, Idaho, and Madison, Wis. The town council of Castle Valley, Utah, population 350, has expressed concern that "several actions recently taken by the federal government, including the adoption of the USA Patriot Act, several executive orders, and the Homeland Security Act may allow the federal government, when pursuing matters of security, to sacrifice fundamental liberties."
And the City Council of New York, population 8,008,278, has echoed that expression of concern with a declaration that "certain provisions in the USA Patriot Act and related federal actions unduly infringe upon fundamental rights and liberties."
In all, states and communities in which a total of 56,988,807 Americans reside have jumped off Ashcroft's bandwagon and signaled that they want Congress to clean up the constitutional quagmire created by the Justice Department and a pliant House and Senate in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It seems that a lot of Americans recognize, as did the members of the Durham County, N.C., Board of Commissioners, that "while (there may be a) need for laws to protect the citizens of Durham County and the United States from terrorists, these laws should not be used to invade the privacy of United States citizens or conduct illicit covert surveillance of ordinary Americans."
When most of the media continues to neglect the loud cries of dissent, several senators have heard the call.
This week, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only member of that chamber who opposed the assault on liberty back in 2001, introduced a revised version of the Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act, a measure designed to address the worst excesses of the Patriot Act.
This time, Feingold did not stand alone.
With Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a conservative Republican, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat who is his party's assistant leader in the Senate, at his side, Feingold explained, "When I decided to vote against the USA Patriot Act in October 2001, I never could have imagined that as we embark on the reauthorization process, I would be standing here today with this distinguished, bipartisan group of senators and individuals, announcing the reintroduction of a bill that goes so far in providing the checks and balances that were missing from the Patriot Act at the time of its initial passage."
Feingold was right that a significant change in the public discourse with regard to the Patriot Act has taken place. Even if most of the media has failed to catch up with the story, pressure from the grass roots has gotten Congress moving. And the SAFE Act is a sound vehicle for that movement.
"The SAFE Act takes the right approach: It permits the government to conduct necessary surveillance, but only within a framework of accountability and oversight," explains Feingold. "It ensures both that our government has the tools to keep us safe, and that the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans will be protected. I am particularly gratified that this bill fixes some of the problems that I identified when we passed the Patriot Act. 'Sneak and peek' searches, the need for reasonable limits on the FBI's use of roving wiretaps, and access to business records were issues I first raised in the fall of 2001 as some of the reasons why I believed the Patriot Act was flawed and threatened fundamental constitutional rights and protections.
"The new version of the SAFE Act that we are introducing also fixes other parts of the Patriot Act that threaten civil liberties. It ensures that recipients of secret business records orders can challenge them in court. It ensures that the FBI cannot use national security letters, which FBI agents issue with no judicial supervision, to go on fishing expeditions for information about innocent Americans. It ensures that the FBI does not obtain sensitive information about our Internet usage without satisfying an appropriate standard. It ensures that environmental protesters or abortion protesters who engage in civil disobedience are not labeled terrorists. And it ensures that the FBI provides some very limited public reporting regarding its secret intelligence surveillance authority."
In other words, the SAFE Act does what the American people have asked Congress to do.
This is how the legislative process is supposed to work, with dissent bubbling up from the grass roots to Washington.
The process would work a little better, however, if a few more reporters decided that this grass-roots rebellion against the administration's war on civil liberties might actually be a better story than the latest gossip about Michael Jackson's misbehavior.
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
© 2005 Capital Times