The Patriot Act: Political Players

The Patriot Act is approaching its fourth anniversary and has already outlived a number of its designers, as key figures move in and out of the Bush administration. Here are some of the major players in the debate today:

Alberto Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales
Attorney General

As attorney general, Gonzales has adopted a different style than his predecessor, John Ashcroft, who rejected proposed changes to the Patriot Act. In hearings on the act held shortly after he took office in February 2005, Gonzales signaled a shift in tone by offering to help craft changes in the law. Civil liberties groups called those changes cosmetic, because they would primarily clarify the rights of citizens under the law and would not limit police powers. Gonzales has also met with civil liberties groups to discuss their concerns about the law. But his Justice Department has marshaled a vigorous defense of the Patriot Act in hearings before Congress.

Viet Dinh

Viet Dinh
Assistant Attorney General, 2001-2003

Often referred to as the chief architect of the Patriot Act, Viet Dinh helped craft the administration's proposal for new anti-terror measures immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. He has remained one of the most persuasive defenders of the law.

Dinh came to America as a refugee from his native Vietnam in 1978. His rapid rise to success — he graduated from Harvard Law School — helped make him the public face of the Patriot Act. He now teaches at Georgetown University Law School and regularly speaks in defense of the Patriot Act in the media and at public symposia.

Sen. Patrick Leahy

Sen. Patrick Leahy
Democrat - Vermont

Leahy became chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the brief period when Democrats gained control of the Senate from the Republicans. That period coincided with the writing of the Patriot Act in the fall of 2001. Leahy was in favor of many of the administration's proposals to expand surveillance powers. But he also pushed for greater judicial oversight and other checks and balances to those powers.

As the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Leahy continues to advocate greater accountability by the Justice Department. He's currently pushing to rein in the Patriot Act and to extend the bill's sunset provisions, so that Congress can exercise continuing oversight.

Sen. Russell Feingold

Sen. Russell Feingold
Democrat - Wisconsin

Feingold is the only member of the Senate who voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. At the time, he cited concerns about the "sneak and peek" provision, and about language that expands the use of foreign surveillance wiretaps for criminal cases. As the law approaches the "sunset" date of Dec. 31, Feingold has continued to support amendments that would limit those same sections of the law.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner

Rep. James Sensenbrenner
Republican - Wisconsin
Chair of the House Judiciary Committee

In his role as chair of the committee that wrote much of the law in the House, Sensenbrenner has been a strong advocate of the Patriot Act. But he also backed the inclusion of sunset provisions that guaranteed the law would be reviewed once the Sept. 11 emergency had passed.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft failed to answer questions that Sensenbrenner submitted about how the act was being used, the chairman threatened to subpoena Ashcroft. But that dispute was resolved, and as the sunset date approaches, Sensenbrenner has voiced greater support for many provisions of the law.

Sen. Pat Roberts

Sen. Pat Roberts
Republican - Kansas
Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee

The Senate Intelligence Committee has responsibility for many of the surveillance laws expanded by the Patriot Act. Roberts unexpectedly jumped into the spotlight in May, when his committee moved to approve legislation that would renew nearly all of the expiring provisions and would also add new powers to the law. Civil liberties groups mounted strong opposition, but Roberts stood firm and passed his legislation out of committee.

Sen. Arlen Specter

Sen. Arlen Specter
Republican - Pennsylvania
Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee

Specter took over as chair of the judiciary panel from Utah's Orin Hatch, who was a strong defender of the Patriot Act. Specter is known as a moderate and as somewhat of a maverick among Republicans. He's signaled a desire to scale back many of the Patriot Act's more controversial provisions.

James Dempsey

James Dempsey
Executive Director
Center for Democracy & Technology

Dempsey is a former Hill staffer who now heads the Center for Democracy & Technology, which works on behalf of what it considers democratic values and civil liberties. The group often focuses on computer and Internet-related issues, but it also works to limit government surveillance. Dempsey has become one of the go-to people in Washington for questions about surveillance law. He lobbied to include civil liberties protections when the Patriot Act was first passed. When Congress began holding reauthorization hearings, Dempsey testified six times on various provisions of the law.

ACLU logo and home page screen shot

The American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU has taken a lead role in challenging the Patriot Act, as well as other facets of the war on terrorism. The organization has filed legal challenges against specific provisions of the act, and it won a court ruling in 2004 that questioned the constitutionality of one part of the law. The ACLU has also filed suit to obtain more information about how the law is being used. Some moderates have questioned the ACLU's aggressive attacks and urged the organization to take a more realistic approach to the problem of preventing terrorism.

Anne Beeson, associate legal director of the national ACLU, has led many of the legal challenges to the USA Patriot Act. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has led much of the public campaign against the law. In Washington, legislative counsel Timothy Edgar has appeared before Congress and at numerous debates on the law.

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