When Adversaries Become Allies
The Fight Against the Patriot Act and the Surveillance State
By Abby Scher
The Public Eye Magazine – Spring 2006
T. Allen (Terry) Hoover, a gun rights advocate and former deputy sheriff, once had a pink submachine gun made as a gift for his wife. He is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. And in Idaho, he was a member of a right/left coalition called the Boise Patriots, which won local and state resolutions demanding that Congress drop the provisions from the USA Patriot Act that are turning America into a dangerous surveillance state.
“The way to cook a frog is to put him in cold water and turn up the heat slowly,” he said after the US Senate renewed a barely-revised Patriot Act in early March. “The original Patriot Act was cold water. Now the heat is turned up, we’re cooked.”
If the Patriot Act gives rise to any positive legacy, it is the “strange bedfellows” coalitions like Hoover’s. From Dallas to Idaho and Montana, political opponents in red states made common cause across party lines in the struggle to defeat its worst provisions.
“In the Boise Patriots, I had to rub shoulders with socialists, gays,” said Hoover. “It was interesting. There was a common denominator of mistrust of government with such vast power—who would be next? [And] many were wellversed in history, remembering Rev. Niemoller—first they came for you, until there was nobody left.”
The strange bedfellows won local council, county and even state resolutions decrying the Patriot Act’s abuse of civil liberties, which both pressured and gave political support to the Republican Senators and Congresspeople who at least briefly broke party ranks to pursue Patriot Act reform and broader investigations of illegal spying by the National Security Agency. And the grassroots organizing can be credited with stopping Patriot Act II, a short-lived effort in 2003 to legitimize the spying power of the government even further.
But even before the March defeat, activists of all political stripes wondered how—with the media and legislators ignoring their cause—they could stop the federal government from breaking the Constitutional and moral boundaries that traditionally kept it from limiting people’s rights. In this struggle, both progressive and conservative coalition members are rooted in the American republican tradition, which for two centuries—dating back to Tom Paine—saw government power as a threat to liberty. In keeping with this long lineage, they view those in government as subject to corruption, and claim the right and responsibility to stand firm in the struggle to control it.
Listening to their fears, you come to understand how personally the allies feel the threat to their own political activity. Without the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights—to free speech, free association, and freedom from unwarranted spying—full citizenship cannot act as a counterweight to overreaching government power. Liberals take it a step further and support these freedoms to pursue the common good through collective and government action.
Together they challenge the Bush Administration’s symbol of the threatened homeland that requires extraordinary measures to save it. And as cross-party coalitions, they are inoculated from the insinuations of treason coming from those coached by Bush strategist Karl Rove.
The Patriot Act
Some Patriot Act skeptics like George Will wondered whether the struggle to soften the Patriot Act was irrelevant since the Bush Administration refuses any Congressional oversight of its secret spying.12
The Defense Intelligence spying program on anti-war activists, the National Security Agency’s illegal spying on phone calls from the US callers overseas, and the massive database of “suspicious” names were all exposed by the press not the Administration.
Still, in March, the US Senate validated many of the provisions of the law passed six weeks after September 11th, even as it stumbles in forcing the Administration to reveal details of its spying programs. Under the revised Act, signed by President Bush March 9,
- The government can still spy on people’s reading habits at libraries without a warrant by securing the information from internet service providers (Section 215).
- The government can still secretly search people’s homes and businesses without telling them, but now must within 30 days (Section 213).
- Agencies have fewer barriers to share information.
- The government can still bypass the usual need to connect its searches to potential “terrorists.”
- The government now allows targets of secret warrants to appeal the secret National Security letters for phone, internet, banking and business records requests under a weak appeals process.
- The gag rule on targets of searches is lifted—after one year.
- The National Security letters provision will expire in four years.
The Department of Justice used more than 30,000 of secret National Security letters in a single year, culling unknown thousands of people’s financial and other records that it then privately shared with other agencies, according to a November expose by The Washington Post. And even the Justice Department admits that 88% of the sneak and peek searches were not for terrorism investigations.
While all coalitions are by their nature temporary, they nurture our ability to work with strange bedfellows, increasing the likelihood that we can learn from one another and collaborate again in the future. They recalibrate the dense moral thickets that set the boundaries of our action. But in this continuing fight, there are two major unknowns. First, can movements on the ground ever force action from Congresspeople who seem accountable only to party or plunder? The disconnect between the grassroots and Washington power centers never seemed greater than in the Patriot Act defeat. Defense Department spying on anti-war Quakers, its new database of activists to watch, FBI scrutiny of PETA as possible terrorists: Will all flow on unchecked?
The second question is whether that disconnect— and the new coalitions—can spark a major political realignment within each of the political parties, if not between them, in a way that defends liberties. There is a deep cleavage within the Republican coalition that is starting to break open; conservative stalwarts both nationally and locally are more committed to the principles of free speech, free association, and freedom from arbitrary government spying, than the Administration’s agenda of unlimited executive power.1 Among Democrats, all but nine Senators voted for Patriot Act renewal. Can the party rank and file call them to task in election season, pushing the Cold War-style stalwarts to the side?
The more sturdy coalitions, and the ones with the potential to disrupt party alignments, are local. Certainly the Beltway groups have joined in left/right alliances in the past without much impact on political alignments. And some progressives show little interest in forging enduring partnerships with any allies who remain actively anti-gay or anti-immigrant. But as we will see, the determination and disgust of local Rightwing activists against an inactive Congress and overreaching president are wildcards whose impact on the Republican Party will reverberate long after the coalitions end.
Coalitions on the Hill
In December, hope flared when a few “libertarian” Republicans inside Congress crafted a strange bedfellows coalition with Democrats (and Independents) to revise the worst excesses of the Patriot Act and fight against the new surveillance society (see box).2 Though temporary, their explosive alliance delayed Patriot Act renewal, marking the first major effort by legislators to restore a constitutionally sanctioned balance of power between the White House and Congress on national security issues.
Joining a filibuster led by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) were 42 Democrats and Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John Sununu (R-NH).3 The legislators of two of those states – Alaska and Idaho— passed Patriot Act resolutions.
“The bridge between Right and Left is rare in this town and this era because there is so much partisan animosity,” said Lisa Graves, the legislative director of the ACLU who led weekly phone meetings updating coalition partners nationwide from the left, right and center. “That’s a significant bridge. Saying you need a connection to a suspected terrorist before getting records is just common sense.”
Even this modest alliance turned out to be weak, with the four Republicans in February bowing to White House pressure for a compromise. And then the Democrats, perhaps fearing for their reelection chances against “patriotic” pro-war Republicans, joined them.
The advocates had faced a difficult challenge in convincing the very Congress that passed the Patriot Act that the initiatives which they supported in the weeks after September 11th were unconstitutional. And despite its outrage over the National Security Agency’s warrantless spying on Americans’ overseas phone calls, Congress seems more interested in defending its prerogatives as overseer of the executive branch than as defender of the Constitution.4
The Beltway Conservative Organizations
Sturdier than the Republican Senators in defending civil liberties are the conservative organizations within the Beltway, whose number are much broader than the libertarians noticed by the press.5 They are a coalition of small government conservatives who first came together with progressives to oppose President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Antiterrorism and Death Penalty Control Act, a precursor to the Patriot Act. That law legalized the use of secret evidence in deportation hearings, created a black list of “terrorist” groups, and restricted the ability of some of those detained by the government to find redress in the courts. Among those opposing both laws are Republican operatives like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, David Keene (head of the American Conservative Union), and Larry Pratt’s Gun Owners of America. Together with the ACLU, they launched Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances early in 2005, and joined the low profile Liberty Coalition after its founding by libertarian Republicans in October 2005.
Paul Weyrich, of the Free Congress Foundation, wrote mournfully of the Checks and Balances coalition: “I detest much of what the ACLU stands for [but] we know of no other way of getting the attention of the media and the Congress to improve the USA Patriot Act.”6
Gun Owners of America, like the ACLU, is linked with members at the grassroots that they can mobilize. In the Gun Owners of America case, the activists are often populist, anti-government defenders of the little man, small enterprise and personal liberty. Defense against a tyrannical federal government is at the root of their arguments for gun rights.
One organizer noted, “The Left will refer to COINTELPRO and McCarthyism [in opposing parts of the Patriot Act] and the Right will refer to Ruby Ridge,” the incident in Idaho when federal agents shot and killed members of the Weaver family on their 20-acre homestead without first calling for their surrender.
Larry Pratt is well within that world. He resigned as cochair of Buchanan’s 1996 bid for the presidency after charges that he was linked to militias and white supremacists. He has been on the faculty of Camp American, which teaches the “deception of evolution” and aims to “restore America to Christ.” Still, as a coalition member, he is “very principled,” said one progressive who has worked with him. He and his group continued to defend civil liberties against the 1996 Anti-Terrorism bill even after a troublesome provision for gun owners was dropped and the National Rifle Association left the coalition.
“Gun Owners of America is not convinced that the FBI doesn’t need to be watched,” Pratt said at an Oct. 26, 2005 press conference calling for Patriot Act reform.
In creating the coalition Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, all these conservative leaders hashed out their concerns with the ACLU, the only liberal member of the group. Igniting their concern were Section 213—the secret searches clause; Section 215—allowing the government to secretly secure records of a person’s gun purchases; and the overly broad section 802, which defines domestic terrorism as “any act that is dangerous to human life,” which could sweep in prolife demonstrators.7 Freedom of speech, they agreed, is violated by the Patriot Act’s “gag order,” preventing those forced to secretly provide information to the government from discussing it.8
Patriots for Checks and Balances “conceded to certain provisions that we don’t agree with—the Patriot Act shouldn’t have existed at all,” said Shane Corey, the chief of staff of the Libertarian Party. Nonetheless, the party signed on.
For the Libertarian Party, working in coalitions is new. “We just started a year and a half ago where we’ll sign on,” said Corey.
“You have people who aren’t used to talking with one another with any kind of trust,” said Kit Gage, director of the progressive National Committee Against Repressive Legislation who helped craft the coalition opposing the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act. “You try to set ground rules, have clarity of communication. At a very core level (you) come to an agreement on where you agree…so you don’t have ACLU say we want X and the NRA say we want X & Y. You don’t end up with a clear message.”
David Keene and the American Conservative Union are old hands at coalitions. “We would not work in coalition with a terrorist group. But there are always areas of overlap with groups that externally disagree,” he said. “We’ve worked with the ACLU since the early 1970s. We fight with them more but work with them when we can.
“When I work with a liberal group, people say, what the hell are you doing? But you are more effective in Congress and elsewhere.”
While Keene remembers his early alliances with ACLU director Ira Glasser dating back to the 1970s, Bob Barr, who launched Patriots for Restoring Checks and Balances with the ACLU, credits Laura Murphy, the ACLU’s recently retired legislative director, for reaching out to Republicans after the 1994 election when they took over Congress. “That for me personally set the stage [for] working with the groups on Patriot Act reform.” As a Congressman, Barr worked with the ACLU against the 1996 Anti-Terrorism law, opposing the national ID card and other proposals, even while opposing the organization on reproductive rights issues, flag burning and drug prohibition.
Even after the four Republican senators caved in to White House pressure, many Beltway conservatives kept up their battle arguing that the “right to privacy” continues to be violated by the Patriot Act.9 As Keene had said the month before, refusing to be a lapdog of the Republican Party in fact increases his organization’s influence, and contributes to a recentering of the party around his politics.
Local Actions: Dallas
“Coalitions are key to taking back this country,” says Chip Pitts, leader of the successful Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) in conservative Dallas, and chairman of the national BORDC, based in Northampton, MA. Inspired by the committee’s core strategy, 405 municipalities passed resolutions calling for reform of the Patriot Act to defend liberty. The tactic, developed months after the passage of the legislation, was a catalyst for making grassroots strange bedfellow coalitions possible. Through its small central office, BORDC offered concrete activities that people could pursue in the face of a big government that seemed out of control: lobby their local legislators to pass the resolutions opposing the Patriot Act’s violations of the Constitution, educate their neighbors and make a big noise so others realize there is a problem with the Patriot Act. When the NSA spying story broke in December 2005, the BORDC promoted new tactics like sponsoring local vigils, a new round of visits to legislators, and ads in local papers in hopes of reviving Patriot Act reform coalitions that had often degenerated into virtual activism on listservs.
While the Beltway alliances defending civil liberties long predate the latest scandals, the local ones are new, sometimes involving activists who had never been involved in politics before. In Republican dominated areas, progressive organizers had no choice but build the widest coalitions possible. This led to more effective statewide organizing—while only 50 out of the 397 local resolutions were in red states, four of the eight states that passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions voted for Bush in 2004. The victories reveal a volatility in red state support for the Bush Administration’s agenda.
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