There is a need to re-examine Patriot Act

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The war on terrorism has proven to be an important part of President George Bush's political identity.

Opinion polls show he achieves the highest marks for his handling of the fight against terrorism. Earlier this month his job approval rating among voters was 56 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

Bush, who routinely says his No. 1 job is protecting Americans from the threat of terrorism, cemented his position on national security issues Thursday, threatening to veto legislation that would scale back key provisions of the Patriot Act.

Enacted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act became a target of criticism for giving police broad powers. The law expanded the government's surveillance authority and makes it possible for federal authorities to -- among other things -- monitor Internet use and inspect library and business records to detect and prevent terrorist activity.

Detractors say it has eroded civil liberties and taken Americans one step closer to a Big Brother-style government that routinely eavesdrops on its citizens without a justifiable reason.

It's no surprise that the American Civil Liberties opposes the Patriot Act. It has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a key portion of the law. But the ACLU is not alone. The Associated Press reports that 241 state and local governments have gone on the record opposing it. Last fall, congressional lawmakers of both parties introduced the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, known as SAFE, that would inject checks and balances into the Patriot Act.

Librarians across the country have expressed concern over how the law affects patrons. Federal agents can keep tabs on their reading habits without their knowledge.

"It's a privacy thing," Moffat County Library Board member Linda Booker said Friday. The Library Board is not among those who have officially opposed the provisions of the Patriot Act. But they have debated it vigorously, Booker said. In the end, they decided to follow the spirit of the law as best they can.

Locally, people are either blissfully unaware of the controversy, or simply don't mind the prospect of having their private lives accessible to prying eyes. At least there's been no public outcry. Some libraries have taken steps to circumvent the law by destroying records of people who use the library -- shredding computer sign-in sheets and purging patron check-out files to keep information out of the hands of federal investigators.

Locally, that's unrealistic, says Craig-Moffat County Library Director Donna Watkins. She relies on information about what people are reading to buy new books.

"I can't go in and wipe out information and be a good steward of county taxes," she said. "I think it's very wrong for the government to have that kind of access, but it's a federal law and if I was served with a subpoena, I would have to abide by it."

While it's highly unlikely any Moffat County resident really has to fear being labeled a terrorism suspect, the real issue is that the government has the right to snoop on us without telling us. And a law that seeks to make the government more accountable seems reasonable.

Booker, who owns On the Shelf Bookstore in Craig, says she thinks the Patriot Act goes "too far."

"I understand that they (federal authorities) have to do things we don't necessarily care for to protect us from terrorists, but when they put laws like this in place, I think it opens the door to abuse. I think most of us wouldn't mind if they were using (surveillance powers) to catch terrorists, but the law lets the government use it for anything."

It's too bad our Library Board can't afford to take the kind of stand it wants to take on the privacy vs. security debate.

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