Criticism of Patriot measure endorsed

City's resolution also opposes passage of USA Patriot Act II

By Jonathan Osborne
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, September 26, 2003

The Austin City Council officially put in writing its criticism of the USA Patriot Act on Thursday, joining the more than 170 cities and counties nationwide that have passed similar resolutions.

Council Members Jackie Goodman, Daryl Slusher, Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez voted for the resolution, which also opposed the passing of the USA Patriot Act II. Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley abstained.

Austin's resolution expresses concern that the Patriot Act, lauded by federal lawmakers as an essential tool in fighting terrorism, might have the potential of violating fundamental liberties.

The resolution -- sponsored by Goodman, Thomas and Alvarez -- stopped short of directing police not to cooperate with federal authorities. And as Slusher requested, it does not declare any parts of the act unconstitutional.

The act was approved by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It gives the government surveillance powers that critics say could lead to the infringement of citizens' civil rights.

It changes federal officials' methods for obtaining records, search warrants and wiretaps if the investigation involves international espionage or terrorism. Agents still must convince a judge that any action is necessary.

Federal officials have repeatedly said that critics are misinterpreting the law and reminded the public that the law has so far been upheld by the courts as constitutional. Officials also say many of the powers the law provides already are granted for investigations of other types of crime, including drug investigations.

"The Patriot Act actually puts more restrictions on our obtaining records than currently exists with grand jury subpoenas," said Ron Sievert, an assistant U.S. attorney in Austin.

Last month, U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo told the Austin American-Statesman, "I think that people hear these broad statements such as the FBI can get your library records, and they're scared -- rightfully so. But when you explain to them that a grand jury can always get your library records under the normal system and that this has to be done under the auspices of a federal judge and Congress, they say, 'Oh.' Our targets are not the average American; our targets are people who want to kill average Americans."

Amid the growing concern, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been touring American cities in recent weeks, promoting the act and defending it as a crucial tool in the battle against terrorists.

His message did not ring true with the more than 100 people who showed up for Thursday's vote, placards in tow.

"As a democracy, we have the right to stand up and say no," Will Martin, a 15-year-old high school student speaking on behalf of the Austin Campus Anti-War Network, told the council.

"The USA Patriot Act . . . is an insult to Americans. Our rights are being threatened by our own government."

josborne@statesman.com; 445-3621