Civil rights lawyer: Patriot Act must go

MILWAUKEE – Bruce Finerty, a Chicago attorney and head of the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, spoke here to an overflow audience of about 100 people recently on the need for the public to respond to the USA Patriot Act, and related acts like the recently leaked Patriot Act II.

Finerty described the USA Patriot Act, passed shortly after Sept. 11, as a “power grab by the Executive Branch. ... Most of this stuff was proposed during Ronald Reagan’s day. It was sitting in some right-wing think tank drawer waiting for something to happen.”

The 346-page bill was passed in the early morning hours of Sept. 12 without having even been read by members of Congress. The Patriot Act II was drafted apparently to be rushed through Congress during a crisis in the same manner, and contains such unprecedented provisions as the stripping of citizenship from Americans, effectively eliminating most of their rights.

Finerty also described the original Patriot Act in detail, noting its authorization of undisclosed “sneak and peek” searches, indefinite detention of immigrants, and broadening the definition of terrorism to include peaceful political activity.

“The whole thing has to be repealed,” said Finerty. But he was also quick to emphasize that the legal tools provided by the Act are only part of the problem. Just as important are the prospects that law enforcement will make more intrusive use of past acts, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, dating to the Carter administration, or simply abuse their powers, for example by leaving incriminating “evidence” behind during a secret search.

Finerty’s practice has included representing Arab and Muslim Americans deprived of their Constitutional rights, and Finerty peppered his presentation with stories from personal experience. Late last year, he said, he represented a man whose only seeming offense was driving near a protest in his car with “a bumper sticker that said, ‘I love Islam.’” Finerty said that that evening, “about nine o’clock at night, the secret service, the FBI, and about forty Chicago policemen are at their door.”

They had no warrant, but according to Finerty, “you don’t have any rights unless we give them to you.” While waiting for the warrant, they were supposed to remain outside, said Finerty, yet for the next six hours, “they came in, they had three secret service people positioned in the house and walking around. ... All night they were going in and out, in and out.” Finerty said he called the media and got a local television cameraman to the scene. “All of the sudden, he’s surrounded by the FBI and secret service, and he’s told to get the hell out of there... They didn’t want any press there. They didn’t want anybody to see what’s going on.” When they left, the police left a copy of the warrant, but not the affidavit on which it was based, because, Finerty said, the search was based on secret “sealed” evidence.

Despite his experience, Finerty does not cite cases he has handled as the basis of his expertise. He told the audience, “When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked me, ‘what makes you an expert, I told them, ‘Well, I’m self-appointed.’

“Most people don’t even know these acts exist and what they mean,” Finerty said. At the end of his talk, he deputized the entire audience to begin “speaking about what’s happening in this country.”

The author can be reached a ggrass@justice.com