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Patriot Act Renewal Debate Kicks Off Over Party Lines


Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) (WDCpix)

Eight years after it was passed, the USA Patriot Act remains among the most controversial pieces of counterterrorism legislation in the so-called “war on terror.” On December 31 of this year, some of its more controversial provisions will expire, forcing Congress to revisit it and decide whether to reauthorize the expiring provisions, amend them, or re-work the entire law.

The sections set to expire give the government the authority to access business records, operate roving wiretaps and conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects with no known link to foreign governments or terrorist groups. A justice Department official last week told Congress that the Obama administration supports their renewal. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote to Senator Patrick Leahy (D- Vt.) that the administration would consider stronger civil rights protections “provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important (provisions).”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, it was clear that Democrats don’t uniformly support the White House on that. Some Democrats on the committee were still bitter that some Republicans back in 2001 had pushed aside a bipartisan version of the bill produced by the Judiciary Committee in favor of a version substantially revised and altered by the Rules Committee, led by then-chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.).

“Then-Chairman Dreier under Lord knows whose instructions, substituted that bill for another bill, that we at judiciary had never seen. So we come here today now to consider what we do with those parts that are expiring” and that, according to committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), created problems that the bill he’d approved would have prevented.

“We held in this committee five days of markup and achieved unanimity on the Patriot Act,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) echoed later in the hearing. “Then the bill just disappeared. And we had a new several hundred page bill revealed from the Rules Committee” that had to be voted on the next day, before most members of Congress even had a chance to read it, said Nadler.

The fight over the bill appears to be as partisan today as ever. At the House hearing, Democrats and their witnesses warned that provisions of the law that allow “roving wiretaps” of different communications devices used by unnamed suspects, or electronic surveillance of suspects with no affiliation to known terrorist organizations, violate constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures. And a “gag order” provision of the bill, they complained, violate the First Amendment by preventing the recipient of an FBI-issued National Security Letter, which can request customer information from businesses, from disclosing to their customers that the information was requested.

While Democrats in the House yesterday cast these provisions as unnecessary and abusive, Republicans deemed them critical to national security.

“We must not be lulled into a false sense of security,” warned Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “The threat remains high,” he added, and proceeded to list about a half a dozen terrorist plots that were either carried out or planned but foiled by the FBI since September 11, 2001, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the thwarting of what he called a “plot to kill U.S. soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base” in 2007.** **

** ** But several witnesses, such as Suzanne Spaulding, a national security lawyer and former staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, testified that parts of the law such as the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the FBI to monitor suspects with no connection to foreign terrorist organizations, “undermines the policy and constitutional justification for the entire [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] statute. “This extraordinary departure from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant standards is justified only in investigation of foreign powers or their agents,” she said. The “lone wolf” provision would allow the government to spy an someone suspected of participating in terrorism but where the evidence is not strong enough to meet the stricter standards for obtaining a regular warrant from an ordinary federal court.

Michael German, a former FBI agent and now policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that the FBI inspector general himself in 2007 concluded that the Patriot Act had been abused. Section 505 of the Act increased the number of officials who could authorize national security letters, seeking private information about certain businesses’ customers, reduced the standard necessary to obtain information with them, to the point where information could be collected about people who are not even suspected of having done anything wrong, testified German.

Even with such broad latitude, German testified, the Inspector general reports “confirmed widespread FBI mismanagement, misuse and abuse of these Patriot Act authorities.” The inspector general reported that the FBI’s record-keeping was so poor it didn’t know how many national security lettesr it had issued, and it often sought private information that it was not entitled to.

“Most troubling, FBI supervisors used hundreds of illegal “exigent letters” to obtain telephone records without national security letters by falsely claiming emergencies,” German added in written testimony submitted to the subcommittee on Tuesday.

And Thomas Evans, a former Republican Congressman from Delaware testified on behalf of the bipartisan Constitution Project that the section of the Act allowing the FBI to issue National Security Letters without a court order and accompanied by gag orders creates “great potential for abuse.” Last week the Constitution Project sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, signed by 26 policy experts across the political spectrum, seeking major reforms to the Patriot Act.

On Tuesday, Todd Hinnen, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the National Security Division of the Justice Department testified that many of the problems identified by the Inspector General and others have been solved. “Since that time, FBI has put in a new data subsystem governing those [national security letters],” he said, adding that the National Security Division of the Justice Department has increased its oversight and Congress and the Inspector General retain their oversight authority.

Hinnen testified further that the expiring Patriot Act provisions were absolutely necessary tools for law enforcement to pursue terror suspects. “We feel that these are very important investigative authorities and that it would be very unfortunate to allow them to lapse. The administration firmly supports renewal before December 31 so there’s no gap in the investigative abilities of the government.”

Conyers was not impressed. “You sound like a lot of people from DOJ that have come over here before, and yet you’ve only been there a few months,” he said, after Hinnen said he started in the job on January 21. “Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?” Conyers asked. As Hinnen hesitated, Conyers added: “You don’t have to respond to that.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its own hearing on the Patriot Act. That promises to be equally contentious. Already, several senators have introduced bills to reauthorize and amend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, although there’s already evidence of disagreement among Senators on the same side of the aisle.

Last week, Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), with co-sponsorship from Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), introduced a bill to narrow the Patriot Act, called The Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools In Counterterrorism Efforts Act, or the JUSTICE Act. The Act would amend not just the expiring provisions but would add protections for privacy civil liberties in each section fo the Patriot Act and other surveillance laws. It would also repeal the retroactive immunity granted to telecommunications companies included in the FISA Amendments Act passed last year.

The Obama administration has supported and defended in court this immunity for telecom companies.

A bill introduced on Tuesday by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Ted Kaufmann (D-Md.), does not repeal the immunity provision, and makes more modest amendments to the Patriot Act. It extends all three of the provisions set to expire this year, but expands reporting requirements to allow Congress to monitor how the administration is using the law.

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