Into 2006, perhaps the first headache the US Congress has to face is the revision of the Patriot Act. The Houses talked and worked out a bill last year, but it was rejected by some senators who stressed civil rights. Finally, the two Houses agreed to extend by a month some key provisions of the anti-terrorism law, which were set to expire on Dec. 31, 2005.
The Patriot Act has been highly controversial since its birth over four years ago. Supporters say it is critical for the US fight against terrorism, and it's necessary to make most of its provisions permanent to give enough power to law enforcement services so that they can effectively collect evidence and beat off terrorist attempts.
Opponents argue that the Act allows too much authority to law enforcement so there must be tight restrictions on disputed articles in order to safeguard people's basic rights.
Apparently, parts of the Act have touched the bottom line of some basic values of the American society.
In American minds, civil liberties are above all, are the cornerstone of the country and any acts invading civil rights must be fully justified before being accepted. Even after the 9/11 incident, the Americans remain divided on the emergence of such a law. In order not to go too far, the Congress set a period of four years to renew the Act.
For a long time, the Americans have been skeptical about their government, and even been on a guard against it. They have been highly alert to its power expansion since it can mean invasion into their rights. When the country was founded, the division of legislative, judicial and executive powers was installed to strike a balance and prevent tyranny. But now, the Act naturally raises public doubts by giving more enforcement power to executive departments.
Worse, what the Bush administration actually did also greatly added worries in the Congress and among people. Scandals, such as detainee abuse, secret prisons abroad and telephone call interception at home, came out one after another at the same time with the Congressional examination of the revision of the Act. The public was particularly shocked after learning daily telephone calls and e-mails were intercepted and their library and business records taken away.
The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution stipulates explicitly: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. For any official surveillance of international communication (long-distance call and e-mail) of residents within the United States, an approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is a must. But soon after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, Bush secretly authorized domestic eavesdropping despite legal prohibitions against the practice.
With power to executive departments misused and individual privacy and legal rights violated, people worry they will be turned into a sacrifice to anti-terrorism. For many US lawmakers, it is so serious a matter that they must interfere in and prevent it. Besides, Bush's low approval rate in recent days lent them courage to challenge the president.
The US Congress will make further consultations on revising the Act in February. As both Houses agreed to extend some key provisions, it seems most members had recognized the importance of the law in fighting terrorism and safeguarding homeland security.
It's highly possible that the Houses, after discussions, will hammer out a comprise in order to strike a certain kind of balance between combating terrorism and protecting civil rights. How to ensure terrorist network tracking and best protect the legitimate rights of citizens? Perhaps it will always be a hard question before the Congress.
(Peopledaily.com.cn January 12, 2006)