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Patrick Leahy Introduces Bipartisan PATRIOT Act Reforms, but Civil Rights Groups Unsatisfied

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced a reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act last week that would extend and reform some provisions set to expire on February 28. Leahy's reforms

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced a reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act last week that would extend and reform some provisions set to expire on February 28. Leahy’s reforms, known as the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011, would limit the government’s power in gathering intelligence on individuals in the United States.

But many civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Library Association (ALA) and the Campaign for Reader Privacy say the reforms do not go far enough to reduce the PATRIOT Act’s impact, which the ACLU calls unconstitutional.

“While this bill makes important changes to the Patriot Act to increase oversight of its powers, it unfortunately allows many dangerous provisions to continue,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel. “Since its passage nearly a decade ago, the Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by law enforcement to invade Americans’ privacy and violate their constitutional rights.”

The bill targets Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, known as the “library provision,” by limiting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) ability to track library records of United States residents.

The PATRIOT Act’s current legislation allows the FBI to obtain any library records that are “presumptively relevant” to a terrorist investigation, including those of people who are not suspects; Leahy’s bill would require the FBI to show a “statement of the facts and circumstances” before being able to obtain private records.

Similar restrictions that mandate evidence and transparency would also apply to government bodies seeking Pen Registers and Trap and Trace Devices (PR/TT) for foreign intelligence purposes and access to phone records.

The extensions would last until December 2013. Leahy introduced a similar bill to the Senate during the previous session of Congress, but the legislation was never voted through.

“Congress now faces a deadline to take action on the expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act,” said Leahy. His bill would, according to Leahy, “promote transparency and expand privacy and civil liberties safeguards in current law. It increases judicial oversight of government surveillance powers that capture information on Americans.”

The ALA and the Campaign for Reader Privacy both noted that the Section 215 revisions extend only to libraries and do not protect bookstore records.

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“We appreciate the heightened protection afforded library records for those Americans who borrow books,” said Barbara Jones, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. “The next logical step would be to safeguard the First Amendment rights of Americans who purchase books in a bookstore. In both instances, reader privacy must be maintained.”

The Campaign for Reader Privacy pointed to Attorney General Eric Holder’s approval of certain provisions in Leahy’s 2009 reauthorization bill, which would protect both library and bookstore records. “Taken together, I believe these measures will advance the goals of … enhancing the privacy and civil liberties our citizens enjoy without compromising our ability to keep our nation safe and secure,” Holder wrote to Leahy at the time.

But Leahy noted the importance of placing the most recent provisions into law rather than administrative action.

“The reforms adopted by this Attorney General could be undone by a future Attorney General with the stroke of a pen,” Leahy said while introducing his bill. “We must ensure that the progress in accountability and transparency that we achieved last year is not lost simply because it was never written into the statute.”

Congress passed a one-year extension of the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions in February 2010, but did not make any changes to the bill, despite proposed legislation pending approval in the House and Senate at the time.

In its report, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” the ACLU outlined three PATRIOT Act provisions that the organization says need reform.

In addition to Section 215, the ACLU also named Section 206, the “roving John Doe wiretap,” which permits the government to secure wiretapping orders without disclosing the identities of its targets; and Section 6001, the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the government to spy on non-US citizens, including those who are not affiliated with foreign groups, as the provisions that need immediate reform.

“The three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act give the government sweeping authority to spy on individuals inside the United States, and in some cases, without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” the ACLU stated in its report. “All three should be allowed to expire if they are not amended to include privacy protections to protect personal information from government overreach.”

“Rather than allow these provisions to be rubberstamped in February, Congress should seize this opportunity to make reforming the Patriot Act a priority,” Richardson stated.

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