Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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Where I Stand — Gary Peck: Our freedom at risk

Editor's note: In August the Where I Stand column is written by guest writers. Today's columnist, Gary Peck, is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

IN THE HALLS of Congress and communities across the country, there is a growing resistance to the government's massive campaign to expand federal police powers in the name of preventing future terrorist attacks. This opposition has prompted the U.S. Justice Department to launch a nationwide public relations "road show," at considerable taxpayer expense, to defend its anti-terrorism policies generally and the increasingly embattled USA Patriot Act in particular.

The 340-page Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was hastily passed shortly after 9-11 without significant deliberation or debate and with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft suggesting that anyone who opposed the bill was giving aid and comfort to our enemies.

After the horrific 9-11 attacks, few doubted the need for heightened vigilance and security. Increasingly, though, many have come to question various provisions in laws such as the Patriot Act that have put freedom at risk by giving short shrift to core constitutional values and upsetting the system of checks-and-balances that is the cornerstone of our democracy.

The Patriot Act dramatically expands government's ability to investigate American citizens for criminal matters without establishing probable cause if the investigation is for "intelligence purposes," and to conduct secret "sneak and peak" searches without notifying those who are targeted before or after the fact.

The Patriot Act also allows citizens and non-citizens alike to be detained, sometimes indefinitely, if the government claims there are "reasonable grounds to believe" they "may be" national security threats. It puts the CIA back in the abusive business of spying on Americans by granting it wide- ranging authority to target individuals for surveillance. And it gives the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies broad access to medical, financial, mental health, library, student and other highly personal records.

Indeed, the Patriot Act defines "terrorism" so broadly that the government could assert that lawful advocacy groups, such as Operation Rescue or Greenpeace, are "terrorists" within the meaning of the law. It could then subject members of these organizations to invasive surveillance, wiretapping, harassment and criminal penalties for exercising their free speech and other constitutionally protected rights. And it could do most of this secretly and without meaningful judicial review.

Because of these far-reaching provisions, which many experts believe are unlikely to prevent terrorism and which have already been used to pursue non-terrorist suspects, the Patriot Act has become the focal point of a national movement to roll back government excesses that threaten the long-term erosion of liberty. To date, three states (Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont) and 150 communities have passed resolutions supporting civil liberties and more balanced anti-terrorism measures. Many of these resolutions prevent local police and government workers from abetting federal agents conducting investigations that unduly infringe on personal privacy or civil rights.

The communities where resolutions have passed are home to millions of Americans, and include major cities like Detroit, Denver and Seattle. Supporters are not just liberal or libertarian, but conservative as well. The Rutherford Institute, Gun Owners of America, American Conservative Union, Eagle Forum and other leading conservative organizations have been supportive.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, put the reasons for their involvement well when he stated "... the problem is that once all this (the Patriot Act) is in place, we will no longer be living in the same country we lived in prior to September 11th." He cautioned that "those asking us to give up liberty for security should be careful."

Given Nevada's long history of resistance to government overreach, it is not surprising that Keene's and others' clarion call has been heard in the Silver State. In recent weeks, a statewide campaign to defeat the Patriot Act has begun to take shape in both the north and south. (To learn more, contact the ACLU of Nevada at 392-8878 and visit the organization's national website at

Borrowing the best parts of anti-Patriot Act resolutions enacted elsewhere and tailoring the language so it best expresses local sentiments, concerned Nevadans have drafted their own resolution, which is the centerpiece of the campaign and which already has dozens of organizational endorsers from across the political spectrum.

We can't permit the Patriot Act to become a permanent fixture in our legal system. We hope Nevadans will join the millions of others nationwide who are striving to ensure that the Act's worst provisions are repealed, and to encourage the adoption of policies and laws that will actually protect us without sacrificing the freedoms we hold so dear.