Last December, when several provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire, Congress instead extended the sunset clause to the end of February. With this extension, as with any extension, one would assume that further debate was their primary motive. As with previous extensions of the Act, serious debate addressing public grievances was never undertaken.
Wednesday evening, the Senate passed a one year extension of the Patriot Act. Similar to the initial passing of the Act, there was no debate. Because this was a voiced vote, there is no record for accountability. A convenience for many members, it potentially avoids the embarrassment should their constituents wish to hold them accountable for the decision come November’s elections. An irony that speaks volumes, considering the stir this legislation has caused within the American public, for nearly a decade.
Thursday, the House sent Obama legislation that would temporarily extend the three expiring provisions for one year. Both the House and the Senate are working on long term renewals of the Act. The differences between the proposed bills are subtle. The Senate bill would reauthorize all authorities, while the House bill proposes eliminating one of the three provisions set to expire Sunday. Known as the “lone wolf” provision, which authorizes the government to “track a target without any discernible affiliation to a foreign power,” the exclusion of such powers would limit the intrusive nature of the Act a bit. However, according to Main Justice, it appears they have never used this provision anyway.
With both Congressional bodies pushing for an extension, it is only a matter of time before Obama signs the legislation. This one year extension will reinstitute the Patriot Act in full. Besides the “lone wolf,” the other two provisions set to expire were:
“Roving surveillance,” which means interception of communication can be utilized regardless of where a person travels. Previously, a wiretap was granted for a specific line at a specific location.
“Business (and library) records,” which refers to NSLs (National Security Letters) used to request personal paperwork on a person under investigation. Thanks to the Act, these NSLs can now be used on American citizens without their knowledge and without probable cause. They also contain a “gag order” preventing the investigated citizen from knowing about it. In fact, a felony can be issued if the party requested to provide the information (say, your banker or librarian, for instance) informs the person under investigation.
The overlapping violations to our constitutional rights, in just the above highlights of the Act, are astonishing. Poorly defined electronic surveillance is a clear invasion of privacy, which is the overall intention of our Bill of Rights. Reuters reported last month that the FBI has collected over 2,000 phone records under the pretense of terrorism, which it turns out, did not exist. While deciphering legislation in order to address their constitutionality is sometimes difficult, the term “gag order” immediately calls to mind our 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech. The right to search the property of citizens without previously required warrants, knowledge of the citizen being searched or even probable cause surely calls to mind our 4th Amendment right, guaranteeing our protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. The violation of these two Amendments is enough to concern the public.
However, the most frightening aspect of the Act is surely the authority to detain witnesses as terrorist suspects indefinitely. (Obama reaffirmed such actions, calling it “prolonged detention” to soften the evident civil liberty violations presupposed.) Initially intended for non-citizens, the public quickly learned that the definition of “enemy combatants” is nebulous at best. This is a clear violation of our 6th Amendment right to fair trial, a right that has evolved over centuries since the inception of the Magna Carta (which introduced habeas corpus, the right to appeal an unlawful imprisonment).
In Amy Goodman’s (of Democracy Now!) book “The Exception to the Rulers,” she relates that the American Library Association has fought back against the government intrusion of privacy with some success. For instance, many have installed “circulation software that automatically erases any record of patron’s book use.” Although civil liberty lawsuits against the invasion of privacy granted by the Act are rampant, little actual success can compare to the effect of a well informed and proactive Congress fighting for our rights in D.C. For this reason, it is imperative that voters seriously reconsider electing these same representatives come November. (Of the representatives opposed to the bill, we find a short list, including: House representatives Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, and Senator Russell Feingold – follow the links to read their objections)
The unconstitutional restraints on freedom of speech, detainment at Guantanamo Bay and the Cyber Security Act may be the topic of conversation today – however it is prudent to remember what started these controversies to begin with. These issues are symptoms of a disease, and the disease is the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, as soon as the President signs the legislation, it appears this bill will be enforced in full for another year. The future isn’t looking too bright either, as “long-term” legislation is being drawn up by both bodies of Congress.