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Kucinich Stresses Civil Liberties

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2003, Page A06

Fifth in a series of occasional articles

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Justice Department moved swiftly to expand its policing powers, and most members of Congress were eager to enact such legislation. But Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) took to the House floor in protest.

"Let freedom ring even as we travel through the valley of the shadow of terrorism, for freedom is a sweeter melody," Kucinich said. "Let freedom ring. If freedom is under attack from outside sources, then let us not permit an attack from within."

Kucinich has taken his mantra on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire. In speech after speech, he accuses the Bush administration of overreaching its authority.

"This is one of the hottest issues in this country right now," he said in an interview. "Americans have a sense their liberty is under attack."

Civil liberties may seem an improbable rallying cry for a presidential campaign. But Kucinich is an improbable candidate for the highest office: a maverick who takes pride in challenging authority. The Bush administration, he tells all who will listen, is encroaching on citizens' privacy rights. "This administration has overreached in the area of civil liberties," he said. "Government shouldn't have that power. It's not consistent with what we are as a nation."

To press the matter legislatively, Kucinich has forged an unusual alliance with Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho), who listened to Kucinich's protest during the initial House debate on the USA Patriot Act.

As Otter recalled, "it wasn't something where we sat down and said, 'Let's work on this together.' Dennis and I both recognized we were of a like mind on the need for protection of civil liberties."

More than a year later the two drafted an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and State spending bill that would prohibit the Justice Department from carrying out the Patriot Act's "sneak and peek" provisions, which allow federal authorities to search someone's home or office without prior notice.

They targeted their natural constituencies, with Otter speaking to the House's Liberty and Western caucuses and Kucinich appealing to the Progressive Caucus. The House approved the amendment, 309 to 118, but it never became law.

Kucinich also has taken on the FBI. He accused the bureau of infringing on civil liberties after the New York Times reported the FBI had collected information on antiwar demonstrators. "I will continue to attend every peace rally possible, and I expect that I will see millions of Americans there standing proudly and openly against these fear tactics," Kucinich said.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and others have defended the Patriot Act, saying critics exaggerate its impact on civil liberties. "The charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air, built on misrepresentation, supported by unfounded fear, held aloft by hysterics," Ashcroft told a gathering of police and prosecutors in Memphis this year.

Nonetheless, Kucinich has offered legislation to repeal the act. Americans, he said, are starting to take note of the government's new powers to search business records, including those in libraries and bookstores, in the name of fighting terrorism.

"Congress is ready for decisive action to defend the civil rights of Americans," Kucinich said at a news conference.

Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), who attended the event, predicted that other Democratic presidential candidates would conclude, "We wish we had thought of this first."

Several Kucinich rivals have leveled criticism of the Patriot Act, but not as regularly and forcefully as Kucinich. His doggedness has won some fans in Iowa, home of the first presidential caucus. Shanna Drew, 32, a student at Upper Iowa University, said she was won over by Kucinich's attacks on the Bush administration's civil liberties stance.

"Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate I know who wants total repeal of the Patriot Act," Drew said at a Kucinich campaign event. But she added that it is difficult to spread the word. "Unfortunately a lot of people don't know what's in the Patriot Act. When you call something a Patriot Act, to be opposed to it seems unpatriotic."

Matt Tapscott, another Kucinich supporter who opposes the Patriot Act, said that only "fairly well-informed voters understand that issue."

Kucinich also supports gay rights, pushing for nondiscrimination in hiring and federal benefits for domestic partners of federal employees. He has sought advice and support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, among others.

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, called Kucinich "an important voice for civil liberties." His voting record is not perfect in the ACLU's eyes, however, because Kucinich supported a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the American flag, as well as legislation to ban procedures that critics call "partial-birth abortion."

Still, Murphy said he was a key warrior in the fight to protect privacy. "He's a coalition builder, but he's also someone who's leading by example," she said.

For Kucinich, the battle over the Patriot Act symbolizes a larger fight over how President Bush and his lieutenants relate to the American people. The candidate has accused the administration of terrifying voters through questionable allegations such as Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"My candidacy really challenges the fear that has been promoted in this country," Kucinich said. "They have built up a climate of fear in this country. Fear itself is forcing us to sacrifice our liberties."

Political researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company