Dec. 12, 2005 – With Congress expected to renew several of the more controversial portions of the USA Patriot Act as early as this week, civil libertarians and privacy rights advocates are highlighting what they see as serious flaws in the new legislation. Their only hope is that public sentiment and political action will sway enough lawmakers to force changes to the law.
Most of the provisions set for renewal involve the expansion of wiretaps and electronic surveillance, areas critics fear are ripe for abuse.
In hurriedly enacting the Patriot Act following the September 11 terror attacks, Congress agreed to attach a four-year "sunset" clause to a number of the more intrusive portions of the law. Now, lawmakers are rushing to ensure that many of those same measures are included in the renewed legislation, either permanently or with sunset dates built in.
Last Thursday, Senate and House leaders reached an agreement on the new language, and both chambers are expected to take up the issue in floor votes this week, even as opposition sentiment spreads from organizations to legislators.
Thursdayâ€™s deal extended federal law enforcement agenciesâ€™ ability to use "roving wiretaps" and to gain expanded access to business records for four more years.
Another concern is a section of the Act that gives the Federal Bureau of Investigation and various intelligence services broader access to information.
A third major complaint of rights groups concerns a provision making it easier for those agents to carry out searches and wiretaps of suspected foreign agents.
All of these measures would be permanently enshrined into law should the compromise pass.
Opponents of reauthorizing the Patriot Act contend that the expanded surveillance provisions are overly broad and that many unconstitutionally abridge personal freedoms. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights advocate, Congress should let every sunsetting section die on New Yearâ€™s Eve.
"Several provisions can be used against Americans in a wide range of investigations that have nothing to do with terrorism," the group alleged in an extensive analysis of fifteen of the provisions scheduled to expire on December 31. "Others are too vague, jeopardizing legitimate activities protected under the First Amendment."
"Worse, the Department of Justice has worked to expand and/or make permanent a number of these provisions," EFF added, "despite the fact that they were sold to the public as â€˜temporaryâ€™ measuresâ€¦ scheduled to expire."
The American Civil Liberties Union largely agrees. In a statement released shortly after President Bush used his weekly radio address to urge lawmakers to quickly pass the reauthorization, ACLU Washington Director Caroline Frederickson called the joint Senate-House Conference Committee report a "concession to the White House and a curtailment of the Constitution."
Fredrickson called the move "a classic sleight of hand." He argued, "The administration has failed to answer basic questions for the American people about how the secret record-search powers that were dramatically expanded by the Patriot Act are being used â€“ ignoring these controversial issues while touting parts of the Patriot Act that aren't even in dispute."
The joint Senate-House conference was not without acrimony. It ended with a handful of legislators from both major parties expressing concern over the wiretap and surveillance measures left in the bill. Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) said he would try to filibuster the bill.
In a seemingly odd twist, internal FBI e-mails and other communications obtained by the New York Times reportedly show that many agents are frustrated over bureaucratic hurdles they must clear in order to use many of their expanded powers.
Other contested measures, including the use of "national security letters" (NSLs) change slightly under the Senate-House deal, according to information compiled by National Public Radio. NSLs are controversial subpoenas for personal records that carry an automatic gag order. Federal agents issued about 30,000 of them last year alone, according to "government sources" cited by the Washington Post.