Renegade Republicans Send a Message on Patriot Act

At 10:15 a.m. on March 17, Sen. John Sununu was on the telephone with newly installed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, urging changes in the anti-terrorist Patriot Act. At 3:30 p.m. on April 18, Gonzales was in Sununu’s Russell Building office to hear the same message from the senator. To no avail. The Bush administration never took Sununu’s message to heart, leading to the current deadlock in the Senate.

Sununu, a New Hampshire conservative and one of the Senate’s rising Republican stars, joined with three other right-of-center Republicans last week to defeat cloture. They thus prevented a vote on reauthorizing the Patriot Act. These conservatives contend that the bill’s final version, while it is aimed at terrorists, actually threatens civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. But President Bush until now has rejected a three-month extension of the government’s anti-terrorist powers while negotiations begin on an amended statute.

This state of affairs reflects a general failing and a specific misunderstanding by the Bush administration. Generally, it has ignored concern that the war against terror threatens the lives of ordinary Americans, as reflected currently in the revelation of the government’s telephone tapping. Specifically, it has accepted faulty Democratic interpretation of a critical Senate contest in 2002.

For the past three years, the Democratic mantra has been that Democrat Max Cleland lost his Senate seat in Georgia because he was attacked for voting against Bush’s homeland security provisions. Accepting that thesis, the president’s strategists were unable to imagine any but the most left-wing lawmakers opposing any kind of anti-terrorist legislation. Actually, Cleland lost because he was too liberal for an increasingly conservative Georgia electorate and because his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, was an excellent candidate.

If Gonzales was not listening when he talked to Sununu, the message should have come over loud and clear on Nov. 14. Sununu was joined by two other Republicans — Larry Craig of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — and three Democrats to protest the final version of a Senate-House conference. These senators wanted to require some connection with a suspected terrorist or spy in order to obtain sensitive personal information, thereby avoiding fishing expeditions.

They also protested the provision making it a crime punishable by up to a year in prison for revealing receipt of a "national security letter" seeking personal records. The change would require the government to show that the recipient of the letter intended to obstruct justice. It would safeguard against spying on law-abiding citizens via the Internet and e-mails. The letter also called for an end to the Patriot Act’s current provision making an act of civil disobedience illegal.

When the conference committee made no changes in the bill, the senators wrote to colleagues taking the same positions, with the addition of another Republican signatory: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. These four GOP dissenters are far from being members of the party’s slender liberal wing. Lifetime records as measured by the American Conservative Union are Sununu, 95 percent; Craig, 94 percent; Hagel, 85 percent; and Murkowski, 74 percent.

Liberals who reflexively oppose anything Bush supports are overjoyed to welcome four apostates, but in fact they represent doctrinal Republican belief in individual rights against governmental power. That sums up the ingrained philosophy of Craig, who at age 60 has held public office since he was 29 years old and has been one of the Senate’s unyielding champions of gun rights.

But what was Larry Craig doing consorting with the likes of John Kerry and Dick Durbin as co-sponsors of his amended Patriot Act? Craig told the Senate on Dec. 15 that he knew he faced "an uphill battle" when he got involved in this fight: "I knew it would be an uphill battle because Americans have grown to be frightened. But now they have grown to be emboldened when they recognized that some of their freedoms were and are at risk."

Craig pleaded with his colleagues to show "sensitivity to the fundamental civil liberties of our country." Moments later, Sununu took the floor to quote Benjamin Franklin. In 1759, well before this county was born, Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."