Panel dissects Patriot Act

Public questions local experts about act’s consequences.
Friday, February 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:08 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Columbia resident John Wilke said he thinks he may be on a federal terror watch list.

His lifelong love of photographing trains has twice drawn the attention of Missouri police officers, who deem this behavior suspicious.

“What city ordinance or state statute prohibits taking photos of trains?” he asked a panel of local Patriot Act and Homeland Security experts Thursday night.

Wilke was one of several who addressed the four-person panel sponsored by the Columbia Public Library and the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County.

The Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 to counter terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks. The act allows for increased FBI surveillance techniques, sharing of information among government agencies and mandates harsher punishments for terrorists.

On Monday, President Bush urged Congress to renew the act during Alberto Gonzales’ swearing-in ceremony as the U.S. attorney general. But some community members feel there are provisions in the act that need to be re-examined.

Columbia resident Anna B. Coulibaly said she feels government officials have unjustly singled out those of foreign decent.

“My first name is Swedish and my second name is African, so I am one of these dangerous people that everyone has to go out hunting,” she said.

Fayette City Attorney C.J. Dykhouse, who was on the panel, said the Patriot Act modified many provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and changed standards for intelligence gathering.

“The FBI can have a warrant to seize just about anything,” he said. “The government can go into a citizen’s home and not notify them, as long as they didn’t take anything.”

This is a concern for Coulibaly, who said she would not be able to find legal representation who would take on a surveillance complaint.

“Where do you turn to if you know your house has been invaded and mail opened?” she asked. “No lawyer would dare represent me out of fear of becoming a co-conspirator.”

Panel member Bruce Piringer, assistant fire chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, stressed the importance of effectively handling emergencies — terrorist or “routine” — at all costs. He noted a lack of common sense at airport security checkpoints.

“I think discrimination is legitimate at some costs,” he said.

But panel member Charles Davis, director of the MU Freedom of Information Center, said government secrecy does not always breed safety.

“Without government transparency comes waste, fraud and corruption,” he said. “When the government tells me, ‘Just trust us, you’ll be fine,’ the first thing I do is grab my wallet, the second thing I do is back out of the room.”

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