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We Disagree, Mildly

Albany Law School debate on the Patriot Act gets down to details—and makes nice

Since it was proposed a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and passed a little over a month later, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (Patriot Act) has been an incredibly divisive symbol in the ongoing battle between national security and civil rights.

Towns, cities and states across the nation, including several in the Capital Region, have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act in the past few years, and while the resolutions may not carry any legal weight, they are certainly casting a very negative light on the bill that was supposed to help protect us from future terrorist attacks. And now, with some of the most controversial statutes in the act set to expire at the year’s end, tensions between the act’s supporters and detractors continue to escalate. A debate on the subject at Albany Law School last week, however, was far more cordial than the national rhetoric might have suggested.

Because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the passing of the act, there has been opposition since its inception. There is no way the massive legal document could have been drafted in the 10 days between the terrorist attack and its proposal, and so it has been labeled a sort of “wish list” that those supporting increased intelligence and law-enforcement powers had long wanted but never been able to pass until the heightened anxiety of the post-9/11 world. A great deal has also been made of its vague language and overall complexity—mostly because it describes changes and updates to previously existing legislation without providing any context for what the original legislation deals with.

Last Thursday (April 4) in front of a small audience of law students and community members, Udi Ofer, project director for the American Civil Liberties’ New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, argued against the Patriot Act, while Margaret Stock, an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, supported it. Ofer was “an obvious choice” to speak, according to the Albany Law chapter of the ACLU, as he has been involved in both national debate and litigation against the Patriot Act. Stock, whose focus is on National Security Law, was described by the Albany Law Federalist Society as an “expert on the Patriot Act.”

Ofer and Stock both sought to immediately extinguish the idea that the Patriot Act was a controversial document from top to bottom. They focused most of the debate on only two of the Patriot Act’s 158 parts: section 213, the “sneak and peak” law that gives intelligence agencies unprecedented surveillance powers and does not sunset; and section 215, the “library provision,” which gives intelligence agencies access—without a search warrant or even probable cause—to “any tangible things” they need to further an investigation, from library records to DNA samples, and will sunset this year if not renewed.

The debate moved forward with a glaring absence of bared teeth, trying to make up what it lacked in intensity with substance. Ofer demonstrated just how ambiguous the language was in many of the sections, pointing out that peaceful demonstrations could be construed as terrorist activity with justification from the Patriot Act. And Stock highlighted many of the national-security protections that purportedly have resulted from provisions in the act. However, the cordial tenor of the argument was hardly representative of the divide the Patriot Act has created on a national level.

Ofer and Stock spent a large portion of the time agreeing that the Patriot Act is not as bad as public opinion has made it out to be. “It is not the goal of the ACLU to have the Patriot Act repealed,” Ofer stated. Instead, they are focusing on changing the few portions of it they feel are unconstitutional.

Stock herself admitted that “there are a few spots in the document that could be tightened up . . . that are probably due to congressional oversights.”

Both claimed to respect and want to preserve civil liberties, but there was a clear gap in what they meant by that: While Ofer and the ACLU believe in placing the civil rights of all citizens at the forefront, Stock (representing a common military attitude) suggested that violating the rights of the few to protect the many is a necessary byproduct of national security in the new millennium.

And despite opening the debate with the promise to avoid the sloganeering that has plagued the larger issue—such as domain names like www.lifeandliberty.gov and www.safeandfree.org—both parties resorted to rhetorical devices in their closing remarks. While Stock claimed “the Patriot Act would have prevented 9/11 from ever happening” and ominously cautioned that “while provisions expire, murderous Jihad does not,” Ofer argued that “9/11 happened not because of bad law, but because of bad lawyers. . . . And future generations of law students will look back on this as a dark period in the constitutional history of the United States.”

The debate left unresolved the key issue posed by professor Stephen E. Gottlieb in his remarks to open the debate: How do we “help intelligence agencies do their jobs without giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want”?

—Nolan Konkoski



What a Week

Hear That, Mr. Turner?

With all of the media attention given to Pope John Paul II recently, one of the late pope’s last messages seems to have been overlooked by mainstream media’s flood of eulogies. A statement made by the pope earlier this year urged “those responsible for communications” to foster a “culture of co-responsibility” and “make possible a true participation in their management by all.” Only by providing a forum for different opinions, reasoned the pope, can mass media “promote justice and solidarity.”

Not Unless the Law Says So

“They need to make a law about that?” Dept.: Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would require companies that have sensitive information in their databases to notify customers if their info has been illegally accessed thanks to a security breach, so they can protect themselves from identity theft. Currently, only California requires such notice.

It’s a Love-Hate Relationship

John Bolton, the president’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who once said “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference” if 10 floors of the U.N. secretariat building in New York were destroyed, faced harsh criticism from Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearing this week. Bolton’s intolerance toward opposing viewpoints—he acknowledged complaining to the superior of an intelligence analyst who disagreed with his positions—drew significant attention from committee members. Nevertheless, like many recent, controversial nominees, none of the committee’s Republicans is expected to vote against Bolton’s nomination.

The Twisted Webs We Weave

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who hopes to become New York’s next governor, recently endorsed incumbent Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings’ bid for reelection. Jennings’ favored candidate for governor remains unknown, however. The last time the office was contested, Jennings—a Democrat, according to voter records—surprised many party loyalists by giving his support to incumbent Republican Gov. George Pataki.



Once a haven: Tyler Arms veterans’ residence.

photo:John Whipple

Movin’ On

Few people are happy that Tyler Arms is closing, least of all the tenants who have to move, but they’re avoiding the blame game

 

Housing for poor veterans “usually gets shoved in some horrible downtown area,” observed Sandy LeVan of United Tenants of Albany. So it’s no wonder that the veterans who live at Tyler Arms, at 688 Madison Ave. in Albany, are attached to the complex of three large mansions across the street from Washington Park and just a few blocks away from the VA Hospital.

But it appears that the Albany Housing Coalition, which owns the properties, took a gamble in 1998 when it opened the house: Apparently, to placate worried neighbors and the city, it agreed to a zoning restriction that requires the residence to take only disabled veterans over 45. Many veterans in need of housing also are dealing with mental illness and substance-abuse issues, and so need more intensive services than Tyler Arms, said Joe Sluszka, AHC’s executive director. Those veterans are served by AHC’s transitional facilities, and usually want their own apartment, rather than a single room at Tyler Arms, when they are ready to leave. Put this together, and despite the growing number of veterans in need of support, you have a prescription for empty rooms.

Tyler Arms, which has 60 rooms, was never full to capacity. Recently, it has hovered around two dozen residents, meaning that the AHC is losing $7,000 to $8,000 per month on the properties, according to Sluszka. The properties were bought with a regular bank loan, rather than grants or government funds. In 2003, the coalition got into zoning trouble with the city for temporarily allowing a nonprofit substance-abuse rehab center to use some of its extra space [“Down But Not Out,” Newsfront, Oct. 16, 2003].

But at the same time, the coalition already had put the properties on the market. There has been a contract for sale since February 2004, dependent on a zoning decision that was possibly expected last night (April 13). The potential purchaser, a Staten Island-based company, wants to turn the buildings into graduate-student housing.

While the zoning appeals process has been in the works, AHC has been working diligently with the Tyler Arms residents to find them new homes, said Sluszka, who took over AHC last spring, after the contract for sale was in place. Of course, as they move tenants out, the financial burden of the house only increases.

“All of us, board and staff, are very disheartened that we are put in this position where we have to close the building,” said Sluszka. “But sometimes one must make hard choices.”

Though they had been told last summer that the building would be sold, the delay had lulled some tenants into thinking it might not happen. Receiving their official 30-day notice to vacate in early April was a wake-up call. One resident, Gregory Brown, wrote a plea for help that was signed by 20 residents and that he delivered to local elected officials on April 8. Brown wrote of the difficulty disabled veterans on public assistance have in saving up down payments, or affording a residence where meals are not included in the rent. Many of them get the minimum $321 per month in housing allowance from public assistance. Only New York state Sen. Neil Breslin’s office responded, said Brown.

Brown also spoke of the benefits of living with other veterans who understand your experience. He said he was hoping federal officials might put their money where their mouth was in terms of supporting veterans and come up with a way to keep the house open for all veterans with no age restriction. “They always come to the parades and wave their flags . . .” said LeVan.

Sluszka sighs when asked about the possibilities of finding grant money to keep the residence open. “I’ve been trying to do that for the entire year I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s not realistic.” What’s more, he’s concerned that some residents are holding on to hope of a miracle rescue, which is keeping them from making use of the coalition’s offer to help them find other housing.

Brown also reached out to the United Tenants of Albany for help. This week, after meeting with Roger Markovics of United Tenants and with Sluszka, Brown said he understands the financial situation, though he still thinks the house’s closing will be a great loss. “It’s too little too late,” he said. “Nobody has any hopes of saving it.” He wishes he’d been invited to testify at the March Zoning Board of Appeals hearing where the buyer’s revised application for a variance was presented. (The first attempt was denied last July.)

“It’s not our intention to block a sale,” said LeVan of United Tenants. “The AHC has done great things for veterans. They have struggled, and been down every path. . . . It’s just . . . if we’d known about this ahead of time, housing groups across the city would have climbed on board and lobbied and supported. . . . These guys are going to get pushed into a market that’s already full. It creates a strain on the city.”

“When tenants face a problem, we try to be as realistic as possible, but we tell them that if they don’t stand up and make their needs known, they will be disregarded,” added Markovics. Still, “I trust Joe to do the right thing for these guys. I don’t want [the coalition] to be painted as the enemies.”

Nonetheless, added Markovics, “to me, everything is negotiable.” He’s suggesting to the tenants that they try to meet with the new owners to see if they would accept a mix of students and veterans of all ages, which would reduce the parking and traffic concerns that neighbors have raised about the student proposal.

Y and S Homes, the potential purchasers, could not be reached by press time.

The coalition, meanwhile, is hoping to turn its attention and energy to its successful projects, including a new transitional facility opening on Walter Street in North Albany in the former Sacred Heart convent, which has its own funding, and some ideas about providing housing for women veterans with children. It’s even possible it could try for another permanent housing residence at some point, said Sluszka, though if so, it would be significantly smaller than Tyler Arms.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


Overheard

Overheard:

“There’s a lot more to this than money. If it’s money I wanted I could take a bottle of valium and sell pills on the street corner. That’s not what I got a license for.”

—local pharmacist on the phone with a customer who was apparently trying to offer “something extra” to get a prescription filled without his doctor’s approval.


Loose Ends

More than 90 percent of the 1,806 people arrested during last summer’s Republican National Convention [“The Price of Dissent,” Newsfront, Sept. 9, 2004] have seen the charges against them dropped or verdicts of not guilty returned by juries, thanks to overwhelming amounts of video evidence that contradict police officers’ claims, reported The New York Times on Tuesday (April 12). In one set of incidents, charges were dropped after an officer who testified against multiple individuals was nowhere to be seen in videotapes of their arrests, while in another incident, evidence submitted by a volunteer film archivist proved that a video used by the prosecution had been doctored. A police spokesman said officers’ inconsistent recollection of events should not be grounds for criticism (to which a letter-writer responded that they shouldn’t be testifying under oath if they don’t remember the events), and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declined to comment on the growing demand for an investigation. . . . A bill that would make capital punishment legal again in New York received a death sentence of its own Tuesday (April 12), as the Assembly’s Codes Committee voted to kill the legislation in committee rather than let it go to a vote on the floor. The bill would have altered the capital punishment statute to make deadlocked juries default to a sentence of life without parole instead of forcing juries to decide between the death sentence and a sentence that would allow for future parole—a condition that the Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional in June 2004 [“A Capital Debate,” Newsfront, Jan. 27]. Republican committee members appeared to contradict their national party’s “culture of life” rhetoric, arguing that the death penalty is a protective measure for police and other law enforcement personnel, but their counterparts in the majority party cited the high number of death-row inmates discovered to be innocent before—and after—execution in voting down the legislation. . . . Gov. George Pataki signed off on a $106.6 billion state budget Tuesday night (April 12), tying up many of the loose ends that the Legislature—despite claims to have broken the 20-year streak of late budgets—had left dangling [“Finished, in an Unfinished Sort of Way,” Newsfront, April 7]. The governor used his veto power sparingly, negating two programs related to capital punishment and one that would give the Legislature control over the funds from the systems benefits fee charged on electricity bills. The governor also gave his approval to the Legislature’s preliminary agreements on voter identification standards and the voter complaint process, providing just enough official compromise to free up federal funding under the Help America Vote Act.



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