Monday, February 20, 2006

S. Florida debates Patriot Act amid worries about government spying on citizens

By William E. Gibson
Washington Bureau Chief
Posted February 20 2006

WASHINGTON � While police groups in Florida urge swift congressional renewal of the USA Patriot Act, some peace advocates have joined critics across the country who say the anti-terrorism law abuses civil liberties and stifles dissent.

The Senate swept aside a filibuster attempt last week to clear the way for passage of the act, probably on March 1. The House is expected to add its approval quickly.

Recent disclosures of domestic eavesdropping have clouded the debate over the Patriot Act. Forged in the fearful aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the act has become a test of how to secure the nation while preserving individual liberties.

"I hope whatever they [members of Congress] pass is a good balance been privacy and public safety," said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association in Tallahassee, one of several police groups that support renewal of the act.

"We are still a democratic society and should not operate like a totalitarian government. Maybe it [the original act] did go too far, as far as individual liberties and the right to privacy is concerned. But we all know it's a new world. Threats are out there, and things like the Patriot Act are needed to address a new situation."

Some dissenting groups in Florida are convinced that government agents have infiltrated and spied upon them. The groups contend that the act reflects a pattern of repression designed to intimidate critics of the Bush administration.

"I don't think the Patriot Act has protected us at all. It has circumvented our civil rights and made it more dangerous to be an American citizen because of your politics," said Richard Hersh of Boca Raton, leader of The Truth Project Inc., a Palm Beach County group that tries to counter military recruitment in high schools. "Spies can go in anywhere and report back to a highly politicized government about the activities of citizens when they are simply exercising their constitutional rights."

Hersh's group was one of many listed as a "credible threat" in the Pentagon's Talon program, according to documents reported in December by NBC News. Talon, which is separate from the National Security Agency's controversial eavesdropping, rounds up reports of suspicious activity to try to prevent another terrorist strike.

Other anti-war groups say they, too, have been infiltrated and monitored despite having no ties to terrorists.

"They know these groups forwards and backwards. Yet they keep sending in agents, keep wiretapping, keep holding vigils on us constantly," said Raymond Del Papa of Fort Lauderdale, an organizer for the Broward Anti-War Coalition. "I think it [the act] should be repealed. The government has crossed a line."

Aware of such concerns, some members of Congress tried to overhaul the act when it came due for reauthorization last year. The House and Senate rejected major changes, but several Republican senators negotiated with the White House to make revisions to secure final passage.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., waged a lonely filibuster to demand further changes this week but was rebuffed on a 96-3 vote. Procedural delays, however, postponed a final vote until early next month.

Most critics acknowledge the value of breaking down bureaucratic walls between agencies that track suspected terrorists. And many investigators say some limits are appropriate to preserve civil liberties. In Brevard County along Florida's Space Coast, both sides have reached an accord, at least on how to handle demonstrations.

The Brevard Sheriff's Office had been monitoring groups opposed to "the militarization of space," prompting critics to fear political intimidation. Faced with potentially expensive litigation, the sheriff's office devised new policies and a training program, with input from the local American Civil Liberties Union.

"A surprising but welcome relationship was built," said Kevin Aplin of the Brevard ACLU.

"We don't monitor protests now unless we know ahead of time there's good information that there's going to be illegal acts," said Bruce Parker, director of homeland security in Brevard. "Even if we go to that protest, if no illegal acts occur, we don't keep the file. It keeps the people legally protesting from feeling like they are being somehow intimidated, which we do not want to do.

"We are just trying to protect everybody's rights, and we feel like we have hit a compromise that will do that for the people who wish to voice their opinion and also protect the citizens here."

William E. Gibson can be reached at wgibson@sun-sentinel.com or 202-824-8256 in Washington.

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