The Magazine

The Patriot Act's Surprising Defenders

From the November 3, 2003 issue: Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein step up to the plate.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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But here, alas, Ashcroft is engaged in what's probably a hopeless effort. For all practical political purposes, the poor man is no longer one of those imperfect human beings Marc Racicot talks about. Ashcroft, instead, has become a cartoon, as sometimes happens in our public life (think Dan Quayle). And the cartoon Ashcroft is "authoritarian"--and too "divisive" to persuade any but the already persuaded that "authoritarian" isn't quite the right word to apply to his Justice Department or to the Patriot Act the department is administering. It's gotten to the point where Ashcroft is automatically blamed for things he can't possibly have done. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Patriot Act last week, the attorney general came under a shower of abuse for ducking an appearance even though, as committee chairman Orrin Hatch eventually pointed out, Ashcroft hadn't actually been invited.

Now, Orrin Hatch is a fine fellow, don't get us wrong. And he is not exactly alone; Ashcroft and the Patriot Act still enjoy broad Republican support on Capitol Hill. But party loyalists like Hatch are less than ideally situated to reassure America that the Bush administration's war on terrorism is other than a fascist plot. In an atmosphere of such intense suspicion, the arguments of party loyalists can only be sold at the deepest of discounts--insofar as they can be sold at all.

No, what the Patriot Act really needs are some Democratic defenders.

And, we're pleased to report, it now has two. They deserve a loud round of applause, and a great deal more publicity.

At last week's Senate hearing, Joe Biden of Delaware didn't have to say that "the tide of criticism" being directed against the Patriot Act "is both misinformed and overblown," that "I stand by my support" of that law, and that the Ashcroft Justice Department has "done a pretty good job in terms of implementing" the law's provisions. But Biden did say all these things, anyway. And California's Dianne Feinstein went further still, in a stern and lengthy lecture about the concrete reality of U.S. anti-terrorism law--as opposed to the paranoiac fantasy version now being circulated throughout the land by the likes of Bob Barr and Howard Dean. How's about we concentrate on some facts, Feinstein suggested.

"I've tried to see what has happened in the complaints that have come in," she said, "and I've received to date 21,434 complaints about the Patriot Act." Except these turned out to be unrelated civil liberties gripes, or complaints about a "Patriot Act II" that doesn't yet exist. "I have never had a single [verified] abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me. My staff emailed the ACLU and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They emailed back and said they had none."

The widespread hullabaloo over the Patriot Act, Senator Feinstein concluded, proceeds from "substantial uncertainty . . . about what this bill actually does do." And "perhaps some ignorance," she added.

We'd challenge that "perhaps" part. Otherwise, we're with Dianne Feinstein a hundred percent. Wonders never cease.

--David Tell, for the Editors