The Ithaca City Clerk’s office received a letter from the Albany division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on April 1 responding to the Ithaca Common Council’s resolution against the USA PATRIOT Act.
The Ithaca resolution was the only one the Albany division of the FBI responded to in the six resolutions sent to them.
According to the National Bill of Rights Defense Committee, an organization that supports the repeal of certain parts of the PATRIOT Act, Ithaca has been the first city in the country to receive a response from the FBI.
The response attempts to address many of the concerns expressed by the council in the resolution.
It states, “Contrary to popular television and theatrical portrayals, the FBI initiates cases predicated on facts, not suspicions or guesswork.”
It continues to emphasize the idea that unlike media representations, the FBI currently adheres to the same standards of justice as they did prior to the PATRIOT Act. In particular, it says that the FBI cannot begin investigations based on actions protected under the First Amendment.
The FBI replied to the resolution in the hopes of creating and maintaining a dialogue between the federal and local governments, according to Lee Cugh, special agent for the Albany Division of the FBI and author of the letter.
“I’m glad people are debating these type of issues,” he said. “[We wanted to] just explain our position.” Cugh also hopes that responses such as these can build public confidence in the government.
“We need their confidence in us that we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
The Ithaca Common Council unanimously passed the “Resolution to Defend the Civil Rights and Liberties of the People of Ithaca” on Feb. 5, criticizing the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.
The PATRIOT Act’s stated purpose is to “to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory [sic] tools, and for other purposes,” as introduced to Congress, according to the Thomas Legislative website.
However, some Ithaca residents viewed the Act as being against the greater good.
“I’m concerned that it poses a threat to our civil liberties. It seems like a slippery slope to more of a police state,” said Pete Meyers, leader of the local chapter of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
The resolution stated the council’s support of civil rights for all people and lists several sections of the PATRIOT Act that they object to, including the government’s heightened ability to conduct searches without a warrant and supervise personal communication.
The resolution ends with a request to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the New York State Police and other law enforcement officers to inform the Common Council and Tompkins County Human Rights Commission of any action they take under the PATRIOT act that the Council has stated objections to. However, citing individuals’ privacy issues, the FBI denied the council’s request for non-public information.
“[With the resolution, we tried] to send a message to the federal government [that they have] gone too far,” said Dan Cogan, M.S. ’95 (Green – 5th Ward), who sponsored the resolution. “As a municipality, we’re on a slightly taller soapbox than an individual is and so have a greater chance of being heard in Washington.”
He hopes that in combination with resolutions by other towns, Ithaca could have an effect on policy.
“We are adding our voice to the growing number of voices speaking against it; it will have an impact,” Cogan said.
Most people involved with or supportive of the Ithaca resolution appreciated the effort invested in the FBI’s response.
“I was pleased [that] we got a response,” said Ithaca City Clerk Julie Conley-Holcomb. “I always think it’s positive [when] large government agencies respond to local government.”
However, some citizens and council members are still skeptical about the PATRIOT Act’s effects on the FBI’s actions.
“Overall, I was glad the FBI responded,” said Cogan. “[However] frankly … my fears are not assuaged by the letter that they sent.”
He said that although he sees the letter as a “PR piece,” he hopes it leads to further action by the government.
“Ultimately, what will happen is they will have to start making changes,” he said.
Likewise, Meyers does not believe that the letter adequately addresses many people’s true concerns.
“Basically, the letter is saying ‘You can just trust us’ … and I think most of the people who read this say, ‘No, we don’t trust you,'” he said.
The Common Council is not planning a formal response to the FBI letter at the moment, and opinions about future action are mixed.
Cogan will wait for the input of the local chapter of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Meyers hopes to formulate a response, but has not written anything so far.
In contrast, Susan Blumenthal M.S. ’78 (D-3rd Ward), who seconded the original resolution, would not necessarily support sending another letter.
“I don’t know if I want to get into a big back and forth [discussion],” she said.
The Common Council has passed similar resolutions in the past, including ones against the war in Iraq and supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Archived article by Shannon Brescher