Slipping down the slope.


When a draft of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, nicknamed PATRIOT II, was leaked last year, public outrage scuppered the proposal. But since then key provisions of the bill have been introduced piecemeal, in what many civil libertarians see as an attempt to fly below the public's radar.

In December, as Americans were glued to coverage of Saddam Hussein's capture, President Bush took the unusual step of signing a bill on a Saturday. The new law, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, expanded the definition of "financial institutions" covered by the PATRIOT Act. Law enforcement agencies may now obtain records without a court order not only from banks but from insurers, travel agencies, stockbrokers, real estate agencies, car dealerships, casinos, jewelers, pawnshops, the U.S. Postal Service, and any other business "whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory matters."

Other components of PATRIOT II remain in the legislative pipeline. The Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act, which has attracted more than 100 House co-sponsors, would turn local law enforcement officials into deputy immigration cops. The Terrorist Penalties Enhancement Act would impose the death penalty for acts of domestic terrorism that result in a person's death. H.R. 3037, introduced by Rep. Tom Feeny (R-Fla.), would empower the attorney general to issue secret administrative subpoenas not subject to judicial oversight. (These are similar to the existing "national security letters," but have a wider scope.) Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has introduced a bill to provide for mandatory pretrial detention of those accused of certain terrorism-related crimes.

American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Counsel Charles Mitchell believes the fragmentation of PATRIOT II is troubling because "it's always easier to get people to give up a little than a lot. They say, 'We already have these powers; we're just tweaking them.' But when you add up the tweaks, you've got a dramatic expansion of power."