Patriot Act Idea Rises in France, and Is Ridiculed
- By MATT APUZZO and STEVEN ERLANGER - JAN. 16, 2015 - The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The arrests came quickly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. There was the Muslim man suspected of making anti-American statements. The Middle Eastern grocer, whose shop, a tipster said, had more clerks than it needed. Soon hundreds of men, mostly Muslims, were in American jails on immigration charges, suspected of being involved in the attacks.
They were not.
After shootings last week at a satirical newspaper and a kosher market in Paris, France finds itself grappling anew with a question the United States is still confronting: how to fight terrorism while protecting civil liberties. The answer is acute in a country that is sharply critical of American counterterrorism policies, which many see as a fearful overreaction to 9/11. Already in Europe, counterterrorism officials have arrested dozens of people, and France is mulling tough new antiterrorism laws.
Many European countries, and France in particular, already have robust counterterrorism laws, some of which American authorities have studied as possible models. But the terrorist rampage at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices and the Hyper Cacher market prompted calls to go even further. Valérie Pécresse, a minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said France needed its own version of the USA Patriot Act, which gave the United States more authority to collect intelligence and pointed America’s surveillance apparatus at its citizens.
Politicians and civil rights advocates on both sides of the Atlantic bristled at that suggestion, and at a string of arrests in which French officials used a new antiterrorism law to crack down on what previously would have been considered free speech. One man was sentenced to six months in prison for shouting support for the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Up to 100 others are under investigation for remarks that support or tried to justify terrorism, authorities said.
Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, warned against the urge for “exceptional” measures. “The spiral of suspicion created in the United States by the Patriot Act and the enduring legitimization of torture or illegal detention has today caused that country to lose its moral compass,” he wrote in Le Monde, the French newspaper.
François Fillon, the former prime minister under Mr. Sarkozy and now a rival for the center-right, said he opposed a Patriot Act for France. “No freedom should be abandoned,” he said. “I do not support fundamental legislative change.” Otherwise, he said, “we give justification to those coming to fight on our land.”
That the Patriot Act has become shorthand for limiting freedom underscores France’s strong criticism of American surveillance. A Pew Global Attitudes poll last year found that 82 percent of French respondents said it was unacceptable for the United States to monitor its own citizens, a figure nearly as high as the opposition to American surveillance of foreigners. Among European countries, only Greece was more fervent in its objection.
“In the United States, restricting the field of liberty has not produced conclusive results,” said Razzy Hammadi, a Socialist legislator from Seine-Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb. “No legislation could ever overcome the madness of a single actor of this kind of barbarism.”
The United States is still, more than a decade later, facing fallout from decisions made after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Congress is expected to reconsider the scope of American surveillance as it decides whether to reauthorize the Patriot Act this year. A scathing Senate report released last month outlined in new detail the brutal interrogation carried out in secret by the Central Intelligence Agency.
And on Friday, the Obama administration paid $385,000 to settle a lawsuit from Abdullah al-Kidd, an American citizen who was arrested in 2003, imprisoned for 16 days, repeatedly strip searched and left naked in his cell. He was held, like many others, on the grounds that he was a potential witness in a terrorism case.
“The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your life that may have resulted,” the Justice Department said in a letter to Mr. Kidd.
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Mr. Kidd, said he hoped that European leaders did not respond in haste. “I think what we saw after 9/11 was real fear, and understandable fear,” he said. “People were unwilling to speak out for civil liberties.”
In that regard, the very existence of a debate in Europe is in contrast to the response across the United States in 2001, when Congress hurriedly passed the Patriot Act before many members had time to read it.
The details of any new French law are unclear, but discussion has focused on increased Internet surveillance and new authority to remove content. Adrienne Charmet-Alix, the coordinator of La Quadrature du Net, a group that advocates Internet freedom, urged caution. Everyone, she said, “must keep a cool head.”
“When freedom of expression is under attack through Charlie Hebdo, when Jewish people are murdered because of their religion, when 4 million people take to the streets, shouting ‘freedom, freedom,’ and the government’s first reflex is to create a framework to reduce this freedom, we must warn citizens,” she said.
European diplomats played down any comparison between the mood in Europe and the American fear of terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, speaking alongside President Obama in Washington on Friday, said the Paris attacks would not be a turning point for Europe, in part because many European countries had developed their own terrorism laws and tactics over the past decade.
Mr. Obama said Friday that while violent extremism had “metastasized” and was “widespread,” he added, “I do not consider it an existential threat.” That is a marked contrast from the language used after the attacks in 2001, when Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser at the time, said, “There is no longer any doubt that today America faces an existential threat to our security.”
France has bolstered its terrorism laws several times since 2001 and has been viewed by American security officials as a strong partner. The most recent law, passed in November, includes travel restrictions for suspected terrorists and increases penalties for people who say things that are seen as supporting terrorism.
“The French were good, and their laws were tough. They didn’t mess around,” said David Raskin, a former chief federal counterterrorism prosecutor in Manhattan. “I was always jealous of some of their trial procedures,” which he said were more favorable to prosecutors than some American court rules.
Matt Apuzzo reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from London.