by Katrin Dauenhauer
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
a clear stand against anti-privacy provisions in the Patriot Act, the House of Representatives in an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort last night agreed to an amendment that would bar federal law enforcement from carrying out secret "sneak and peek" searches without notifying the target of the warrant.
The Otter Amendment, added to the Commerce, Justice and State Departments funding bill and named after Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, an Idaho Republican, passed by an extraordinary margin of 309 to 118, with 113 Republicans voting in favor.
"Not only does this provision allow the seizure of personal and business records without notification, but it also opens the door to nationwide search warrants and allowing the CIA and National Security Agency to operate domestically," Otter said.
The Patriot Act, which significantly expands the government's domestic spying powers, was passed within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The House amendment represents the first major change to the act since it was signed into law by President. George W. Bush.
Civil liberties activists immediately hailed the decision as a huge win.
"Congress took a courageous stand last night in its response to widespread public concern over civil liberties -- hopefully this is the first trickle in a flood of Patriot fixes," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office.
"Congress is beginning to respond to what regular Americans have been saying at backyard barbecues and across their kitchen tables for months now: we can -- and must -- be both safe and free," she said.
The amendment would effectively prohibit any implementation of the controversial section 213 of the Patriot Act, which enables federal agents to obtain so-called "sneak and peek" warrants with far less evidence than was required before the bill was passed.
Under these warrants -- also referred to as "black bag" warrants -- agents have the permission to search homes, confiscate certain types of property and monitor computers, without notifying the subject of the search.
The amendment still has to get past the Senate and Bush before it becomes law.
The vote in the House of Representatives yesterday was preceded by a unanimous vote in the Senate last week to deny funding for the domestic cyber-surveillance system known as the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) project -- recently renamed from "Total Information Awareness."
The provision blocking funding for the program was included in the Senate version of a military spending bill currently being considered in Congress.. In contrast to the House version, which only restricted TIA's use against U.S. citizens, the Senate version denies funding for "research and development on the Terrorism Awareness System."
The program would use "data-mining" technology to scan vast amounts of personal "transactional" data, including monitoring and looking for suspicious patterns in telephone records, credit card transactions, broadcasts, internet use, medical files, relationships, travel details and legal information, among others.
Democratic Senators Ron Wyden, from Oregon, and Russ Feingold, from Wisconsin, had pledged last winter to block funding of TIA until Congress has a chance to thoroughly review the project's implications.
A fellow senator, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, has complained that TIA takes an "Orwellian approach" -- in fact, one of the program's first logos (since discarded) featured an all-seeing eye casting its gaze out over the globe.
The language agreed to in the Senate last week is even more forceful than that suggested by Wyden and Feingold, and stands in clear contrast to the Bush administration's active support for the program and the Pentagon's aggressive lobbying on behalf of TIA.
"Make no mistake, the Pentagon can't erase history by changing a name -- it's the same program and contains the same pitfalls," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Liberty and Technology Program. "Luckily the Senate historically stood up to the administration and Pentagon and said 'no' to a surveillance society."
"Terrorism Information Awareness, as it's now called, seeks to catch bad guys by spying on law-abiding Americans, making it ineffective and inherently offensive to civil liberties," Steinhardt added. "Those lawmakers who sought to shut it down deserve applause for supporting Americans' right to privacy."
Opposition to the program, as well as to several sections of the Patriot Act, is growing and has been unusually broad ideologically, including groups as diverse as the ACLU and the American Conservative Union.
Earlier this week, the ACLU kicked off a "Campaign to Defend Our Libraries," with the aim of warning patrons about Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The section grants law enforcement the ability to obtain -- without an ordinary criminal subpoena or search warrant and without probable cause -- a court order giving them access to "business records" and "any tangible thing," including records from libraries, booksellers, doctors, universities, Internet service providers and financial institutions.
Critics see the section as too broad and structured in a way that allows ordinary citizens to be caught up in the net of intelligence investigations.
"The New Mexico Library Association is on record expressing its concerns about the Patriot Act," said Eileen Longsworth, president of the association. "The NMLA encourages the library community to educate itself and library customers about the Patriot Act, and the potential dangers to individual privacy and confidentiality of library records resulting from the enforcement of this act."
Bills are currently pending in the House and Senate that seek to restore privacy in libraries and bookstores.
Opposition to the Patriot Act is also coming from state legislatures. Yesterday, the city council of Charlottesville in Virginia blocked some implementation of the act, joining more than 140 communities, encompassing more than 16 million people in 27 states, that have passed resolutions against it.
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