Patriot Act Debate Plays Out in Radio Ads

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As Congress debates whether to renew key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, outside interests are deeply involved. Among the strategies: radio advertisements for and against renewal of the law.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

US House of Representatives could vote as soon as next week on whether to make the US Patriot Act a permanent part of the US legal code. Portions of the act are set to expire at the end of the year. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The American Civil Liberties Union knows it can't bring down the Patriot Act alone. It needs support from moderate and even conservative groups. Lately, the organization has been trumpeting its association with the right in a series of radio ads.

(Soundbite from radio ad)

JERRY: Hey, Steve, how'd that Schuck Magnum(ph) treat you?

STEVE: Not bad, Jerry. How's business?

JERRY: Good, but the Feds are making me nervous.

ABRAMSON: This ad is sponsored by Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, which brings together the ACLU, the American Conservative Union and Gun Owners of America. The ad's imaginary gun-store owner is apparently worried about one of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions, Section 215, which allows terrorism investigators to get ahold of business records whether they're stored in libraries or in gun stores.

(Soundbite from radio ad)

Unidentified Man #1: These secret searches, they're part of the Patriot Act, and I don't want them demanding the records at this gun store or anybody else's.

Unidentified Man #2: You're right. They need to take another look at it and fix it.

ABRAMSON: In fact, the administration has taken steps outside the Patriot Act that actually limit access to information about gun ownership. But as with many media ads, the focus here is less on pinpoint accuracy and more on getting the listener to get on the horn.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Woman: Call Senator Specter, 1 (800) 858-7974. Tell him that hunting for terrorists doesn't mean bagging our rights.

ABRAMSON: The ad tries to appeal to the pro-hunting sensibilities of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who also happens to be the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And this past week, Specter proposed changes to the Patriot Act that would limit access to data about firearm sales and other information. Patriot Act critics have also gotten free advertising from the 389 communities, counties and states that have passed resolutions expressing concern about the Patriot Act. To get his state to join this group, Montana state Senator Jim Elliott related this anecdote of a conversation with his family doctor.

(Soundbite from conversation)

Senator JIM ELLIOTT (Montana): `So how's my wife doing?' He says, `Well, I can't tell you.' I said, `Why can't you tell me?' He said, `Well, the federal government's passed a law called HIPAA, and under that, I can't tell you how your wife is doing.' And I got to thinking, this was after the Patriot Act had passed, `So you can't tell me how my wife is doing, but you have to tell the federal government if they ask you.'

ABRAMSON: Resolutions like this one passed in Montana carry little or no legal force, but the ACLU and other groups have used them to demonstrate that concern about the Patriot Act is widespread. The government is not running any ads, but it gets media play through one of its best-known spokespersons.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I call on Congress to reauthorize the 16 critical provisions of this act that are scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

ABRAMSON: President Bush regularly urges renewal of the act without any changes. He spoke this past week at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Pres. BUSH: The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of this year and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act.

ABRAMSON: But the real spade work of defending the Patriot Act is being done by the people who actually use the law. US attorneys have appeared before congressional committees. They're also appearing on stages large and small across the country. Mary Beth Buchanan is the US attorney for western Pennsylvania.

Ms. MARY BETH BUCHANAN (US Attorney): I've spoken to law enforcement groups, community groups, appeared on radio programs and have several television interviews scheduled over the next several weeks.

ABRAMSON: Like other US attorneys, Buchanan says she keeps away from politics. She relies on a no-nonsense approach and points out misstatements she finds in arguments by Patriot opponents.

Ms. BUCHANAN: And I will show what the law was before the Patriot Act, and then on the other column, I will compare what the changes are in the law after the Patriot Act.

ABRAMSON: And the campaign may only intensify as the debate moves to the floor of the House and the Senate. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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