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`USA Patriot Act' seen as both eye-catching, tough to criticize

WASHINGTON—What gets people worked up about the USA Patriot Act? Maybe the name is a big part of the controversy.

Members of Congress and their staffers are always seeking an eye-catching, headline-making moniker to dress up a bill. The "Patriot" Act has become a classic.

A staffer on the House Judiciary Committee, Chris Cylke, achieved "acronymic immortality" by naming the anti-terrorism bill, according to language maven William Safire.

The Senate had attached "USA"—Uniting and Strengthening America—to its version of the bill, but House of Representative staffers wanted something more "that encapsulated the whole effort against terrorism," recalled Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the committee.

The result: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act."

Critics saw an Orwellian effort to erode rights under the banner of patriotism and stifle opposition. "With a label like that, it's hard to criticize in any way," Safire wrote.

"It's a dissent-chilling acronym," Samuel Dash, legendary lawyer and Watergate investigator, wrote just before he died last year.

This year, when congressional critics introduced a bill to cut back on some of the Patriot Act's surveillance powers, they came up with their own acronym: The Safe Act (Security and Freedom Enhancement Act).

The coalition trying to change the Patriot Act also adopted a catchy name: Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.

"Two can play this game," said Tim Edgar, the national security counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the leaders of the coalition.

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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