Panelists spar over merits of Patriot Act |

Panelists spar over merits of Patriot Act

How can the United States enforce Operation Iraqi Freedom when it can’t even secure freedom for its own citizens?

That ironic question was posed by South Tahoe High School teacher Eric Allmeroth during a packed community forum Sunday that highlighted the pros and cons of the USA Patriot Act. At least 70 people attended.

The forum’s intent was to openly discuss balancing American security with constitutional rights. The compelling quandary was moderated by Lake Tahoe Community College anthropology and sociology Professor Scott Lukas and organized by the Lake Tahoe Democratic Club.

The Patriot Act, which was passed six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, essentially gives the federal government expanded surveillance powers. Parts of it have a 2005 sunset clause, but critics don’t want to wait that long to express their opinions about it.

The legislation faces legal challenges for alleged violations of civil liberties.

The controversial issue brought people from both sides of the fence to Sierra House Elementary School to debate the stimulating topic with panelists Allmeroth; Dan Defoe, a professor at Sierra College in Rocklin; retired military lawyer and South Tahoe High School ROTC instructor Matt Williams; and Rhonda Rios Kravitz, a CSU Sacramento librarian.

Libraries represent the front line of information dissemination in the nation. Kravitz told the group of eager listeners that CSU has joined the ranks of a coalition of libraries to challenge the federal government’s access to records without probable cause or due process under the guise of weeding out terrorist cells.

“I can tell you that the right to read without fear of government surveillance is a fundamental right to our democracy,” she said.

The audience cheered.

Kravitz gave simple examples in which the government may seek records of a library user’s reading habits, a practice that strikes of McCarthyism, she said. The act also allows authorities to gain access to medical and Internet service providers.

She said the library invites all points of view to patrons, dispelling a “dangerous assumption” that reading about terror would make one a terrorist.

As an example of the kind of information the government wants, Kravitz cited a request for data from about 100,000 scuba divers in the nation because word came out of an underwater terrorist plot.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the government over a section of the act that lets FBI agents monitor the books people read.

When asked by the Tahoe Daily Tribune whether there’s an underlying fear the Patriot Act or absence of it would breed a paranoid society, Kravitz said the social issue brings up “grave concerns” in that regard.

Allmeroth agreed.

“I tell people there’s that threat,” he said.

The panelists and audience grappled with the threat to public safety in a day and age when airplanes are flown into buildings as weapons on American soil.

Williams, who addressed the advantage of the act as a means to protect America, assured the audience that each security case is subject to scrutiny. Moreover, employees of the federal government would face criminal sanctions if there are blatant civil rights violations.

“Now, the Patriot Act isn’t perfect. I have concerns, but I’m not here to address the flaws of the act,” he said.

Williams used the statements of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., after the terrorist attacks that inquires whether the nation has all the tools necessary to eliminate such national threats.

“This wasn’t something Congress was in lock step to approve because Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted it,” he said.

In pointing out the advantages that have resulted from the act, Williams referenced the tripling of border patrol agents, more money for the U.S. Customs Service and additional FBI translators.

Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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