The state’s top federal prosecutor is planning a town hall-style forum this month to defend the USA Patriot Act against critics who say the antiterrorism law threatens civil liberties.
The meeting, billed as a discussion to inform the public about the law, is scheduled for Sept. 17 at U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton’s office at Two Renaissance Square, 40 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.
The announcement of the meeting comes after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the 93 other U.S. attorneys to drum up support for the law in their communities. Similar meetings are planned in cities throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Ashcroft has launched a national campaign that will promote the law during the next couple of weeks. He is scheduled to speak to more than a dozen law enforcement groups in at least seven states. But the attorney general is not booked to attend the Valley’s forum.
Speakers at the Phoenix meeting will include experts who support and oppose the law, said Pat Schneider, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A mediator will ask the panel a series of questions before the discussion is opened up to the public and the media.
The antiterrorism law, written and passed within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has given federal authorities sweeping powers to 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.
Some members of Congress as well as civil liberties groups and immigration organizations say the law needs to be revised and safeguards must be implemented to protect the public against abuses.
Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there was a compelling need to enact antiterrorism laws after the Sept. 11 attacks, but those powers need to be checked. She added that the Bush administration has used the national tragedy to ask Americans to give up their civil rights.
"In my opinion, this is when we need them the most," she said, adding that the Bush administration has been fanning fear since the attacks.
The ACLU has been the driving force behind the grass-roots campaign to roll back antiterrorism laws, but other civil rights organizations also have been critical of the Patriot Act.
Deedar Abboun, executive director for the Arizona chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said provisions in the law that allow authorities to detain suspected terrorists without charges have frightened many in the Arab-American community.
"It’s very disturbing and upsetting when people just disappear," Abboun said.
Zakaria Soubra, the former Tempe resident who was attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott when the terrorists attacked nearly two years ago, is one such person.
Federal authorities detained Soubra on May 23, 2002, after his student visa expired because he dropped out of classes at the aviation school.
Soubra moved back to Lebanon after spending more than a year in a federal facility in Florence where he was kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to speak with family members or friends.
However, supporters say rolling back the Patriot Act will severely limit law enforcement efforts to stop terrorism and endanger the American public.
"The Patriot Act is an invaluable tool that has significantly helped our counterterrorism investigations," said agent Susan Herskovits, a spokeswoman for the FBI.
"We consider it a necessary and timely piece of legislation that we need to fight terrorism," she added.
Since the law was passed, she said Phoenix agents have exercised provisions that allow them to attend public meetings while undercover. Previously, federal agents were restricted by law from attending public gatherings in an official capacity.
FBI officials in Phoenix, however, denied exercising some of the most controversial sections of the law. Under the Patriot Act, federal agents are able to access library files without notification.
Patsy Hansel, director of the Mesa Public Library, said the law forbids her from notifying staff if federal agents have taken records.
Herskovits denies claims that federal agents have taken files from any Valley library.
About 140 local governments throughout the nation, including Tucson and Flagstaff, have passed resolutions condemning the USA Patriot Act as unconstitutional. No similar resolutions are working their way through East Valley cities.