Supporters of the USA Patriot Act faced a rancorous crowd Wednesday morning, defending the antiterror law against jeers from its critics.
A panel of four speakers, two opposed and two in favor, pleaded their cases at a public meeting hosted by U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton in his downtown Phoenix office. Nearly 70 people attended, most of whom were opposed to the law.
Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned of the law’s dire consequences to American freedoms. She criticized broad language in the bill that gives government more authority to conduct wiretaps and search warrants on suspected terrorists.
"The definition of terrorism is so broad that Rosa Parks would be labeled a terrorist," she said, referring to the civil rights activist who refused give up her bus seat to a white passenger.
The antiterror law, she added, has created a culture of spying and mistrust that is equal to the McCarthyism of the 1950s.
Steve Twist of the Viad Corp., speaking to the hostile crowd, defended the law, saying it is necessary to "protect our life, liberty and property."
Debate about the terror law has intensified since President Bush called for a significant expansion of the law enforcement powers under the USA Patriot Act last week.
Late last month, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed all 94 U.S. attorneys to hold forums in an effort to shore up support for the law, which has drawn fire from members of Congress and civil rights organizations.
Ashcroft recently ended a monthlong campaign in which he visited several states and gave a series of invitation-only speeches to law enforcement officials.
Billed as a town-hall style forum to inform the public about the law, those who attended criticized the format of the meeting that banned audience members from asking panel members direct questions. Instead, questions were written down on note cards submitted to Frederick Petti, who acted as the meeting’s moderator.
"They had no intention of having an open dialogue here," an angry Mike Hilland of Phoenix said after the forum.
Several times during the two-hour meeting, people shouted out questions, but were told by the moderator to stick to the format.
Before the meeting began, people walked through a metal detector on the 12th floor of Two Renaissance Square, where armed security guards passed out a list of rules that included no signs, no disruptive behavior and no cameras or video equipment except for media. A videotape of the meeting will be made available for $15.
The antiterrorism law, which was written and passed within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has expanded the power of federal authorities fight and prevent terrorism. The law has dramatically increased the power of federal and local authorities to search the homes and businesses of suspected terrorists and detain them without charges.
"I think that the Patriot Act is not patriotic," said Deborah Euler-Ajay, an assistant federal public defender and staunch opponent of the law. "The Patriot Act was born out of reaction and lives in secrecy," she added, drawing an applause from the crowd.
Jeff Breinholt, deputy chief of counterterrorism for the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that the antiterror law is constitutional and merely updated existing laws to help guard against terrorism. He stated several times that the Patriot Act made it easier to track terrorists by allowing different government agencies to share information.
Before Sept. 11, he said, law enforcement and intelligence agencies were limited with the information they could share by national security reasons.
"The Patriot Act does not run roughshod over the Constitution," he said, "but we can argue whether it is a good public policy issue."
After the meeting, some audience members said the meeting was intentionally held at a time that would keep attendance to a minimum and requested that another meeting be held at a larger venue.
"How many people can come out to a public meeting at 10 in the morning?" said Paul McBroom, a Sun City man who identifies himself as a "rabble rouser" on his business card.
He also was not satisfied with the arguments he heard from the four speakers, saying their remarks sounded like a politician’s stump speech.
Harriet Bernick, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office district of Arizona, defended the meeting and said her office did everything they could to create a free exchange of ideas.
She added that her office decided to use note cards so questions would not be repeated and to keep the meeting from turning into a shouting match.
"We did as much we could to control the chaos," she said after the meeting.