FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fixing the Patriot Act, Restoring the Constitution

At the end of this year, three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act will sunset unless Congress acts to reauthorize them. In my view, Congress should take this opportunity to revisit not just those three provisions, but rather a broad range of surveillance laws enacted in recent years to assess what additional safeguards are needed.

That is why I have introduced the JUSTICE Act, S. 1686, along with Senator Durbin and eight other Senators. It takes a comprehensive approach to fixing the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act, once and for all. It permits the government to conduct necessary surveillance, but within a framework of accountability and oversight. It ensures both that our government has the tools to keep us safe, and that the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans will be protected. Because as the title of this hearing suggests, we can and must do both. These are not mutually exclusive goals.

Indeed, the Department of Justice just last week acknowledged as much in a letter setting forth its views on Patriot Act reauthorization. The Department said: “We also are aware that Members of Congress may propose modifications to provide additional protection for the privacy of law abiding Americans. As President Obama said in his speech at the National Archives on May 21, 2009, ‘We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.’ Therefore, the Administration is willing to consider such ideas, provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities.”

I welcome the administration’s openness to potential reforms of the Patriot Act and look forward to working together as the reauthorization process moves forward this fall.

But I remain concerned that critical information about the implementation of the Patriot Act has not been made public – information that I believe would have a significant impact on the debate. During the debate on the Protect America Act and the FISA Amendments Acts in 2007 and 2008, critical legal and factual information remained unknown to the public and to most members of Congress – information that was certainly relevant to the debate and might even have made a difference in votes. And during the last Patriot Act reauthorization debate in 2005, a great deal of implementation information remained classified. This time around, we must find a way to have an open and honest debate about the nature of these government powers, while protecting national security secrets.

As a first step, the Justice Department’s letter made public for the first time that the so-called “lone wolf” authority – one of the three expiring provisions – has never been used. That was a good start, since this is a key fact as we consider whether to extend that power. But there also is information about the use of Section 215 orders that I believe Congress and the American people deserve to know. I do not underestimate the importance of protecting our national security secrets. But before we decide whether and in what form to extend these authorities, Congress and the American people deserve to know at least basic information about how they have been used. So I hope that the administration will consider seriously making public some additional basic information, particularly with respect to the use of Section 215 orders.

There can be no question that statutory changes to our surveillance laws are necessary. Since the Patriot Act was first passed in 2001, we have learned important lessons, and perhaps the most important of all is that Congress cannot grant the government overly broad authorities and just keep its fingers crossed that they won’t be misused, or interpreted by aggressive executive branch lawyers in as broad a way as possible. Congress has the responsibility to put appropriate limits on government authorities – limits that allow agents to actively pursue criminals, terrorists and spies, but that also protect the privacy of innocent Americans.

This lesson was most clear in the context of National Security Letters. In reports issued in 2007 and 2008, the Department of Justice Inspector General carefully documented rampant misuse and abuse of the National Security Letter (NSL) authority by the FBI. The Inspector General found – as he put it – “widespread and serious misuse of the FBI’s national security letter authorities. In many instances, the FBI’s misuse of national security letters violated NSL statutes, Attorney General Guidelines, or the FBI’s own internal policies.” After those Inspector General reports, there can no longer be any doubt that granting overbroad authority leads to abuses. The FBI’s apparently lax attitude and in some cases grave misuse of these potentially very intrusive authorities is attributable in no small part to the USA PATRIOT Act. That flawed legislation greatly expanded the NSL authorities, essentially granting the FBI a blank check to obtain some very sensitive records about Americans, including people not under any suspicion of wrong-doing, without judicial approval. Congress gave the FBI very few rules to follow, and should not be all that surprised at the result.

This time around, we have the opportunity to get this right. That is why we should look at a range of issues and not just the three provisions that expire.

Russell Feingold is a United States Senator from Wisconsin.

More articles by:

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail