Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) released a letter Tuesday he sent previously to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to implement accountability provisions in the Patriot Act that Congress quietly renewed for one year in February.
The letter, sent March 17, discusses the bill introduced by Senator Leahy in fall 2009 to renew parts of the Patriot Act, which had been set to expire at the end of 2009, but were temporarily extended through February 28, 2010, while also adding measures that would enhance accountability and oversight.
The legislation would have reauthorized three provisions of the Patriot Act that would have allowed the government to set up “roving wiretaps” to monitor multiple lines of communication without identifying the target; seize financial, travel or other business records without the suspect’s knowledge; and monitor a target without a discovered affiliation with a terrorist group or other threat. The latter “lone wolf” measure only applies to non-US citizens, but has never been used by the government.
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The reauthorization would also have come with more privacy protections added, such as new reporting requirements when certain measures are used and a mandate that Congress be informed when the lone wolf provision is used. It also particularly sought to increase accountability regarding the use of national security letters by the FBI to obtain individuals’ records without a court order. In January, a Justice Department report said that the FBI used various informal methods to improperly obtain records – what the FBI called “sneak peeks.” It sought documents related to at least 3,500 phone numbers.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said while appearing on Capitol Hill in January that the FBI improved its internal controls after growing aware of the problem.
“We now know that the National Security Letter authority was significantly misused,” Senator Leahy wrote. “That is why I fought hard to retain a sunset for National Security Letters in our legislation, in addition to an audit. It is important that there be increased accountability for this authority.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, the Obama administration and Holder all endorsed and supported the Senate’s bill. However, the Democrats lacked the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass it and avoid an expected filibuster, and it never made it to the floor.
The Senate then opted to vote for parts of the Act’s extension instead. An extension that did not include the Senate bill’s accountability provisions was tucked in an amendment to a Medicare reform act. It passed in the Senate with an up-or-down voice vote late in the evening of February 24. The House then passed the reauthorization 315-97 the next day, extending the due-to-expire Patriot Act by one year; President Obama signed it the Saturday after.
Terrorist attacks around that time also influenced the vote, and individuals such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), the ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, believed that such changes would weaken the act.
“Recent terror attacks, such as those at Fort Hood and on Christmas Day, demonstrate just how severe of a threat we are facing,” Senator Sessions said. “This extension keeps Patriot’s security measures in place and demonstrates that there is a growing recognition that these crucial provisions must be preserved.”
In a speech made while campaigning in August 2007, President Obama committed himself to upholding civil liberties during his presidency.
“I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom,” he said. “That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime…. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists.”
“I wish [the Patriot Act] did factor into his priorities at all, but it doesn’t seem to,” said Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. “What was a priority was not fixing it, but just ramming it through again.”
Senator Leahy emphasized, “even without Congressional action,” the administration can and should still take steps to ensure accountability and privacy measures. “The one-year extension should not become an excuse to defer implementation of the important civil liberties and enhanced accountability provisions … that received the support of the Administration. We should work together to ensure that these important accountability provisions are realized without delay,” he wrote.
“Senator Leahy and others on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees went down swinging for the constitution,” said Buttar. “It’s great to see them revisiting the issue.”
However, he added, “Whether they’re successful on the hill will depend on how loud we in the grassroots are …. The populist grassroots of both parties want to see the constitution restored.”