GEORGIA REP. BOB BARR wasn't against the Patriot Act in fall 2001, when he, along with an overwhelming majority in Congress, voted to enact it. But now Barr says he's changed his mind. "I do regret my vote," he said Thursday, at a panel called "USA Patriot Act: Civil Liberties v. Civil Liabilities," organized by the American Conservative Union and James Zogby's Arab American Institute. Barr's no longer in Congress. Instead he holds the "21st Century Liberties Chair for Freedom and Privacy" at the American Conservative Union, a conservative group based in Virginia.
Our rights are being infringed, Barr said. And "no matter how much our rights are being infringed," no one "in Washington would ever admit they are doing so."
"The government justifies its gathering of evidence based on absolutely no evidence that these people have done anything wrong," Barr continued. However, when asked, Barr didn't cite any specific instances of abuse or fraud committed under the Patriot Act. In fact, at one point he said it is hard for him to cite any. It was difficult for the legislation's critics to provide specific examples of abuse, he explained, because much of the Patriot Act operates in secret.
Barr isn't alone. He's the voice of a small, but extremely vocal, coalition of conservatives and Republicans who oppose the Patriot Act, among them David Keene, who runs the American Conservative Union, and Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist.
Norquist was at the panel, too. His problem isn't so much with the legislation, which he says should be reevaluated and "sunsetted." His problem is with potential abuses of power. It's not enough to simply trust the government to do the right thing, Norquist said. "I think Bill and Hillary Clinton deliberately abused power."
That Norquist and Barr are in the minority is a sign of the extent to which the Republican party under George Bush has embraced government power. At Thursday's panel, the pro-Patriot Act side of the debate was represented by Barbara Comstock, attorney general John Ashcroft's former chief of public affairs, and David Aufhauser, former chief counsel for the Department of Treasury. Comstock pointed out that there are provisions in the Patriot Act which stipulate the Department of Justice's Inspector General must disclose reported abuses every six months.
This doesn't placate Barr. He said the rights of Americans are endangered, specifically "the right to travel." Barr is not against only the Patriot Act. He is against airline passenger screening systems as well. "The government has no right to tell us that we need its permission to travel," he said.
Aufhauser started his presentation by quoting Yogi Berra: "We're lost but we're making good time." He said the Patriot Act has done a lot of good, and that your opinion of the legislation is based on how you answer two questions. First, How alarmed are you by the threat posed by al Qaeda? And second, How much do you trust government officials? If your answer to these questions is "Not much," Aufhauser said, then you are probably against the Patriot Act.
Republicans believe in limited government, Barr said.
"Limits are limits," Aufhauser said. "They are not prohibitions to prevent the president from performing his most significant duty, which is keeping the country safe."
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.