By Shin InouyeLegislative Media Liaison
The Patriot Act, the controversial 2001 anti-terrorism measure, is entering the final stage of the reauthorization process. Next week, the House and Senate will likely hammer out the differences between the two competing bills. While neither bill solves all of the flaws in the hastily passed Patriot Act, the Senate version is a step in the right direction: it puts modest safeguards on some key provisions that went too far, too fast. We urge you to editorialize in favor of that proposal.
The Patriot Act was passed with very little debate, just 45 days after 9/11. Some of these vast new powers were long sought by law enforcement and had been consistently rejected by Congress as unnecessary and overly intrusive. It was this hesitation that led to the inclusion of “sunsets” on some of the most far-reaching Patriot Act powers so that Congress would be required to review these new powers and it would have the leverage to get answers from the executive branch.
While Congress held several hearings on the Patriot Act itself this year, neither chamber held substantive hearings on new proposals in the reauthorization bills. The House leadership only allowed one day for debate on the floor and refused to allow an up-or-down vote on several measures that would help bring the Patriot Act back in line with the Constitution by restoring proper checks and balances. For instance, House leadership refused to allow an up or down vote on a proposal to exempt library records from government fishing expeditions, even though the full House voted to approve a similar amendment to the Justice Department authorization bill to limit funding for such intrusions. The House bill makes some cosmetic changes to some of the most troubling provisions and makes some provisions worse while not really fixing the fundamental problems.
Opposition to the House bill comes from both liberals and conservatives. The ACLU has been working with Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, chaired by former Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA), a network that includes organizations like the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform.
Both bills make permanent fourteen of the sixteen expiring provisions, and put a new sunset date on two provisions – section 215 (the “library records” provision) and section 206 (john doe roving wiretaps in intelligence investigations). However, under the Senate bill these provisions would expire in four years, while the House bill would extend them for a full decade, diminishing oversight of the use of these powers by this administration and the next.
The Senate bill, while not perfect, does take steps in the right direction by providing needed checks on some powers expanded by the Patriot Act. For instance:
The ACLU, in two separate lawsuits, has challenged national security letter authority. In the first case, the judge found the power so broad it was unconstitutional, stating among other things “democracy abhors undue secrecy.” In the second case, the judge recently ruled that the permanent gag order must be lifted.
In both the judicial courts and in the court of public opinion, Americans realize that the Patriot Act places too much power in the hands of the government, with too little oversight. Nationwide, nearly 400 communities and states have passed resolutions urging Congress to fix the Patriot Act. Congress must listen.
To better protect our freedoms and liberties and to preserve those ideals that define America, Congress must adopt the Senate bill.
For more information about the Patriot Act, please go to: