The Issues: Patriot Act

Patriot Act, Civil Liberties, Constitution

CBS News continues an election-year series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews compares the Bush and Kerry positions on the Patriot Act.

Mary Lieberman saw exactly how the Patriot Act might be abused when she was the director of a church-based group in Knoxville helping Iraqi refugees.

"An agent from the FBI came into my office and said, 'Let me look at all your files of all your Iraqi-born clients,'" said Lieberman.

All the files meant personal and medical records of refugees legally in America, some because they had fought Saddam Hussein. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI has broad power to go after terrorists, but Lieberman says she felt a chill for Americans.

"It just felt like this overbroad fishing expedition," Lieberman says.

Asked what she would say to those people who would expect no less of the FBI, Lieberman answers, "I would say first it would be the Iraqis and then it would be somebody else… Mr. John Q. Public. It would be you."

When Lieberman fought the FBI, a federal judge forced her to give up some but not all of the Iraqi records. She's joined an ACLU lawsuit challenging the reach of the Patriot Act.

Those who would reform the Patriot Act, including liberals and conservatives, do not claim there has been widespread abuse of civil liberties so far, only that the potential exists. Out on the presidential campaign the issue is should the Patriot Act be changed.

President Bush wants the Patriot Act to stand as is.

"The Patriot Act defends our liberty," says the president. "The Patriot Act makes it possible for those of us in a position of responsibility to defend the liberty of the American people. It's essential law."

Sen. John Kerry, however, has proposed reforms.

"There's several provisions in the act that I think need to be changed," says Kerry.

Kerry would require FBI agents to list "specific facts" when they want personal records and "specific targets" when they want roving wiretaps. He would also let parts of the act expire at the end of next year.

"We're not going to undo those parts of it that are very important to the security of our country," he says.

What frightens Mary Lieberman is the secrecy the FBI has under the Patriot Act. When agents want personal records, for a certain time, the person being investigated cannot be told.

"I was really scared," Lieberman says, "not just for these clients, but just for my country."

But defenders of the act say that secrecy is needed so terrorists don't know the Feds are looking, that Mary Lieberman and innocent Americans can relax.