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A federal judge today struck down provisions of the Patriot Act as unconstitutional, adding fuel to the politically charged debate over the controversial law.

US District Judge Ann Aiken slammed Patriot Act amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for eviscerating the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects against unwarranted government searches, and can only be modified by further constitutional amendment.

Judge Ann Aiken ruled that FISA "permits the executive branch of government to conduct surveillance and searches of American citizens without satisfying the probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment".

"For over 200 years, this nation has adhered to the rule of law — with unparalleled success. A shift to a nation based on extra-constitutional authority is prohibited, as well as ill-advised."

The case was brought by Brandon Mayfield, a Portland attorney whose life was turned upside down by the feds after he was mistakenly fingered by the FBI for involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Mayfield settled for $2m, but retained the right to challenge the Patriot Act in court.

Judge Aiken dismissed the government's arguments with extreme prejudice, accusing the US attorney general's office of "asking this court to, in essence, amend the Bill of Rights, by giving it an interpretation that would deprive it of any real meaning. This court declines to do so".

Mayfield accused the FBI of violating the 4th Amendment by conducting warrantless searches of his home and office. We suspect certain Orwellian elements on the American right have always wanted to do away with that particular inconvenient part of the Constitution. Terrorism paranoia has provided the perfect storm of hysteria needed to wash away such ancient and fundamental rights as habeas corpus, or the right against self-incrimination - the Patriot Act assault on the Fourth Amendment is only part of a broader effort.

The Cheney Administration has an insatiable hard-on for this particular brand of proto-totalitarianism, and will no doubt appeal the ruling. ®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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