Patriot Act operations classified ‘secret’

Congress on May 26 passed a four-year extension of post-September 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. Approval of the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities under the USA Patriot Act came after lawmakers rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties are not abused. It was signed into law by President Obama shortly before the provisions expired at midnight.

The measure passed will add four years to the legal life of court-ordered searches of business records and of roving wiretaps — those authorized for a person rather than a communications line or devices. Although most of the Patriot Act is permanent law, the special provisions must be renewed periodically because of concerns that they could be used to violate privacy rights.

Freshman Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky saw the terrorist-hunting powers as an abuse of privacy rights. Paul argued that in the rush to meet the terrorist threat in 2001, Congress enacted a Patriot Act that tramples on individual liberties. He had some backing from liberal Democrats and civil liberties groups who have long contended the law gives the government authority to spy on innocent citizens.

Still, coming just a month after intelligence and military forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was little appetite for tampering with the terrorism-fighting tools. Those tools, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, “have kept us safe for nearly a decade and Americans today should be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will continue.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (Dem.-Ill.) said he voted for the Patriot Act when he was a House member in 2001 “while ground zero was still burning.” But “I soon realized it gave too much power to government without enough judicial and congressional oversight.”

Sen. Mark Udall (Dem.-Colo.) said the provision on collecting business records can expose law-abiding citizens to government scrutiny. “If we cannot limit investigations to terrorism or other nefarious activities, where do they end?” he asked.

Sen. Ron Wyden (Dem.-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the executive branch had come up with a secret legal theory about what information it could collect. He warned, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

“The Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by law enforcement to invade Americans’ privacy and violate their constitutional rights,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office. She pointed out that court approvals for business record access jumped from 21 in 2009 to 96 last year.

Intelligence officials have denied improper use of surveillance tools. And without the three special authorities, the Obama administration says that the FBI might not be able to obtain information on terrorist plotting inside the U.S. and that a terrorist who communicates using different cell phones and email accounts could escape timely surveillance.

The nation itself is divided over the Patriot Act, as reflected in a Pew Research Center poll last February, before the killing of bin Laden, that found that 34 percent felt the law “goes too far” and poses a threat to civil liberties. Some 42 percent considered it “a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists.”

Sen. Paul asked whether the nation “should have some rules that say before they come into your house, before they go into your banking records, that a judge should be asked for permission, that there should be judicial review? Do we want a lawless land?”

Senators Wyden and Udall obtained a promise from Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that she would hold hearings with intelligence and law enforcement officials in June on how the law is being carried out. Wyden says that while there are numerous interpretations of how the Patriot Act works, the official government interpretation of the law remains classified. “A significant gap has developed now between what the public thinks the law says and what the government secretly claims it says,” Wyden said.

– edited from, The Associated Press and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, May/June 2011

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Patriot Act unconstitutional

A federal court in Los Angeles has issued the first ruling in the country declaring unconstitutional part of the USA Patriot Act. U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled January 23 that a ban on providing "expert advice and assistance" to terrorist groups violates the Constitution because it is so vague that it "could be construed to include unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the First Amendment."

The legality of the Patriot Act, enacted six weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), New York. Nancy Chang, senior staff counsel at CCR, said, "The Patriot Act was passed by Congress in tremendous haste and with little deliberation over its restrictions on civil liberties, under intense pressure from the Bush administration. The court’s ruling affirms the principle that, in fighting terrorism, Congress and the President are not free to ignore our fundamental constitutional rights."

– edited from
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2004