By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The American Civil Liberties Union raised objections yesterday to a little-noticed provision of the latest version of the USA Patriot Act bill, arguing that it would give the Secret Service wider latitude to charge protesters accused of disrupting major events including political conventions and the Olympics.
But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who sponsored the provisions, and his aides said the concerns are misguided. The changes are meant to clear up legal confusion about the Secret Service's role at major events and to ensure that venues are fully secure before the president or other top officials arrive, they said.
"I'm a little surprised at the concern," Specter said in an interview, adding later, "The venue needs to be subject to their jurisdiction to make sure it's okay."
The measure is the latest point of contention in a GOP-approved conference bill that would make permanent most parts of the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law and would renew two other provisions for four years. A bipartisan group has vowed to fight the proposal, and several lawmakers proposed legislation yesterday that would give Congress an additional three months to negotiate.
The Secret Service is authorized to charge suspects with breaching security or disruptive behavior at National Special Security Events, but only if the president or another person under the protection of the service is in attendance, according to a legislative summary.
The bill adds language prohibiting people from "willfully and knowingly" entering a restricted area "where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting." The measure also applies to security breaches "in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance," according to the bill.
Penalties for such violations would increase from six months to a year in prison.
To the ACLU, the changes would open the door to even tighter security restrictions at major events and would subject protesters to harassment from federal law enforcement officers. The Bush administration has come under sharp criticism from liberal and civil-liberties groups for disputed arrests and security measures at presidential events.
"It's cementing the trend of the Secret Service basically acting to arrest or harass or control dissenters, and now not just at presidential events but at other events," said Timothy H. Edgar, the ACLU's national security counsel.
But Specter and his aides said the first change is meant to close a loophole in current law, whereas the second is aimed at making clear that the Secret Service has authority at major events as outlined in a Clinton-era presidential directive.
A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment on the issue because it involves pending legislation.