Kerry's Volte-Face on Patriot Act

Two months before the Iowa Caucus, John Kerry tore a big page from the ACLU's playbook and lambasted the Patriot Act as snooping, intrusive, and a bad law that should be repealed. Kerry then was a stuck-in-mid-pack centrist, Democratic presidential hopeful whose candidacy had garnered little public enthusiasm or political traction. He could afford to let fly at anything Bush favored or said.

But Kerry won the Iowa caucus, and in the next couple of months racked up big wins in most of the other Democratic primaries. He was no longer a mid pack candidate, but the presumptive Democratic presidential contender. With the public, press, and Republicans now homed in on his words and actions, Kerry has to act and talk like a Democratic front-runner on the issues. The Patriot Act is one of them. Kerry quickly dropped his ACLU sounding rant against it, and said it should be improved, not scrapped.

Kerry made his political about-face for a good reason. Despite President Bush's Iraq woes, and public battering for his alleged 9/11 intelligence blunders, terrorism is still his big political trump card. The Patriot Act is the one thing that the public identifies as his handiwork. A February Gallop/CNN/USA Today poll found overwhelming public backing for the act. One in four even said the act didn't go far enough. Presumably that meant they were willing to give FBI agents even more power to survey, and plant agents in churches, mosques and political groups, ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives, and detain anyone suspected of terrorist associations indefinitely without formal charges against them.

Former Bush counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke and the parade of witnesses that testified before the 9/11 Commission fanned public fears that terrorism is still a major threat in the United States, and the government should do more, not less, to combat it. While Clarke racked up big headlines with his finger point at National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice for fumbling the intelligence ball, polls still showed that this had almost no negative affect on Bush's ratings on terrorism. An April poll by the Pew Research Center found that Bush's ratings had actually jumped.

Though the Patriot Act's provisions don't expire until 2005, Bush has made it a political litmus test in the war against terrorism. Any politician who waffles on supporting its renewal, or worse says that the act should be weakened, risks being branded as soft on terrorism. That could be the kiss of death for a politician that the tag of being soft on crime was a few years ago.

Clinton in speeches has sternly warned the Democrats that if they want to grab the White House they must seize the national security and defense issues from the Republicans. That means do and say nothing that stirs public sensibilities and fears on the war on terrorism.

A tip off that the Democrats would tread gingerly around the Patriot Act came last year when the Center for Public Integrity leaked a report that claimed that Justice Department officials proposed radically revising the Act to give even more spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a "disfavored political group." The Justice Department and the FBI would have the say-so over who and what those groups are. A handful of Democrats made muffled noise about the civil liberties danger in the proposed changes, but the issue quickly died.

The 9/11 Commission almost certainly will make tough recommendations to strengthen the government's legal and intelligence weapons arsenal. And since the commission has made it clear that it won't beat up on Bush for his alleged intelligence bumble, those recommendations could help, not hurt, him by reinforcing his oft-repeated charge that terrorism is the paramount threat to Americans.

But that doesn't mean that Kerry or the Democrats should bow to political expediency and soft-pedal their opposition to those provisions in the Patriot Act that swing the door wide open to privacy and civil liberties abuses. They include the provisions that require public agencies to hand over personal records, permit secret search and seizures in private homes, and the use of surveillance, wiretaps, and internet searches in criminal cases that have nothing to do with terrorist investigations. A recent study found that in many of the hundreds of terrorist related cases the Justice Department prosecuted few have netted any significant prison time.

Bush has said that he will speak out about the need to renew and strengthen the Patriot Act every chance he gets. Kerry should speak out loudly about it too, but as a critic of it not a cheerleader for it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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