Reality Check

Reality Check: USA Patriot Act

What Are They Really Saying In Those Ads?

You're seeing a flood of campaign commercials in the U.S. Senate race. How do you make sense of any of it? Colin Benedict reports in News 3's "Reality Check" series with a look at how several ads are talking about one thing -- the USA Patriot Act.

So far in the U.S. Senate race, you've been hearing a lot about Sen. Russ Feingold's vote on House Resolution 3162.

Ninety-eight senators voted for it. Feingold was the only one to vote against it, and everyone is using TV ads to tell you about it.

Let's start with an ad from Tim Michels that deals with one specific part of the Patriot Act:

This needs clarification. A wiretap applies only to one phone number. A "roving wiretap" applies to a person. The government can listen in on conversations even if that person uses different phones. But before the Patriot Act, the government could use roving wiretaps. Department of Justice documents show they are used for drug offenses and racketeering, and even for terrorists in criminal offenses. The difference now is they're used in national security investigations.

"If Sen. Feingold would have had his way, we would not have the Patriot Act in place," Michels said. "We would not be able to have roving wiretaps. The terrorist would really be at an advantage that they're not at now."

Feingold voted against the Patriot Act, which included this part of it. But he said he supports roving wiretaps.

"Yes, the government needs to be able to do a roving wiretap on a terrorist, but we've got to make sure they're going after a terrorist, not a completely innocent person in Middleton," Feingold said.

In fact, Feingold said he supports 90 percent of what's in the bill. It's the other 10 percent he finds unacceptable, and you've heard about that in his responding TV ad:

First, let's examine the first half of that sentence about obtaining library records and monitoring computers. The senator is referring to Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It gives the government the authority to check things, such as library records. If investigators tell a judge that a search is needed to protect against international terrorism, the judge must allow it.

Section 217 creates so-called "computer trespassers," and allows the government to search in certain circumstances.

Feingold clearly identifies two new search areas for federal investigators, but the second half of this sentence makes the statement ambiguous -- " ... obtain library records and monitor computers of ordinary citizens with no ties to terrorists."

Feingold can't definitively show that anyone's civil liberties have been violated or that anyone with no terrorist ties is being tracked. However, it could be happening and here's why. Further down in Section 215, under subsection D, it says: "No person shall disclose to any other person ... that the federal bureau of investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section."

In other words, if the FBI asked for library records of, say, a Madison resident, the library director here couldn't tell us if the FBI did. We know because we asked her.

Let's move on to Feingold's final claim. It says there's support for changing the Patriot Act:

This is true, News 3 reported. A bill to change the Patriot Act called the Safe Act is in Congress. News 3 checked its support and 19 senators have signed it -- 14 Democrats, four Republicans and an independent.

Part of it would require more government proof before accessing roving wiretaps, and it would place new limits on library searches.

That bill has not passed and won't be dealt with until after the election.

The Patriot Act sunsets in December of 2005.

Tune into "News 3 at Ten" Thursday to see Part III of "Reality Check."

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