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Udall warns of government overreach in light of vote against Patriot Act

Colorado Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Udall has long urged his colleagues to reform three of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, saying the provisions are ripe for abuse. This week Congress decided against reform and extended the act as it stands for four more years. In voting with the slim majority that opposed extension, Udall made clear that, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee privy to executive branch information, he felt the provisions were now being abused, that the government was unnecessarily trampling rights and also blocking oversight.

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“Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” Udall said during the debate that preceded the vote.

On Tuesday, Udall introduced three amendments to the act but the Senate, taking cues from Majority Leader Harry Reid, voted not to consider any amendments.

Udall, who supports the act generally and has voted for previous short-term extensions, said he could not vote to extend the act again as it stands. He told reporters that leadership has time and again put off calls for reform by suggesting that concerns would be addressed later, when the bill came up for longer-term extension.

Udall said that given the act passed a decade ago and in light of the fact that this week’s vote would extend the most controversial provisions for years, now was the time for real debate and reform. The three provisions targeted for reform by Udall and others were set to expire Friday.

Udall was joined in his arguments by Ron Wyden from Oregon, also a member of the Intelligence Committee. In making his point, Wyden threw more light on why he and Udall and others were mounting such a strong case for reform now.

Wyden said that the executive branch had developed a legal theory unknown to the public that outlined what kind of information it could collect under at least one of the provisions the lawmakers were opposing. He said that the executive branch reading amounted to “secret law” that didn’t jibe with a straightforward reading of the text of the legislation.

“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon,” Wyden said. “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

Just as he did in talking with reporters and on the Senate floor Tuesday, Wyden referenced the illegal warrant-less domestic spying undertaken by the Bush administration that eventually came to light and shocked the public.

Members of the Senate like members of the House were unmoved. The Senate voted to extend the Patriot Act 72 votes to 23; the House voted 250 to 153. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet voted with the majority to extend the act.

“I resent this rush to rubber-stamp laws that endanger liberties we hold so dear,” Udall told reporters Tuesday. “They have always pressed for short-term extensions without debate. Now we were notified just a few days ago that we would be asked to pass a four-year extension. We are ensuring Americans will live with the status quo for four more years.

Congressional leaders opposed to amendment debate said the fact that the provisions were set to expire Friday presented a national security risk.

“They had this on the to-do list for months and months,” Udall said. He told reporters the provisions could have been extended short-term while reforms were being weighed.

Udall aimed not to strip the controversial provisions from the act but to revise them.

His Amendment 331 would have required the FBI to show a link to terrorism when seeking court permission to access business records. As is, the FBI may demand that businesses of all kinds, say your credit card company or your phone company, open access to your records without ever providing justification or informing Congress of the search.

Amendment 332 would have eliminated the ability of the government to conduct “roving wiretaps” without identifying the person or the phone to be wiretapped.

Amendment 330 would have required law enforcement to notify Congress before the government begins surveillance on any so-called lone wolf– or any individual not connected to a terrorist group or a foreign government. Such surveillance is now allowed without notice.

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