A Refuge for Cowards

Bill Maher recently told Larry King that the Senate is where “legislation goes to die.” Well, not this time.

Wednesday night, after all the cameras were gone and the Senate was filled just with senators, a voice vote was taken sans debate and a resolution passed that extends provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which were scheduled to sunset on Sunday, for another year.

The Democrats who are said to have worked hard to neutralize this legislation that had a built-in sunset clause did little more than wring their hands.

Republicans, so adept at lip synching that same old song about national security, were quick to point to Ft. Hood, and the bungled bombing of an airline on Christmas Day as the rationale behind the Patriot Act. But, what these strident proponents of homeland security neglected to mention is that both the Ft. Hood incident and the aborted bombing of a Southwest Airlines jet happened after the Patriot Act had been in full play for nearly a decade. Go figure.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a measure intended to protect against abuse of library records by the FBI, as well as restrict the use of National Security Letters,governmental demand letters for information. The House bill was also meant to challenge carte blanche surveillance of someone designated as a “lone wolf.”

But, thanks to Senate Democrats’ temporary state of paralysis, there will no doubt be more warrantless police searches of a suspect’s home after their arrest as happened in San Diego, U.S. v. Lemus, a case that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to hear last week with another prominent George W. Bush-era figure, Jay Bybee, sitting on the bench. Bybee, you’ll recall, was one of the masterminds of the 2002 “torture memos.”

Does anyone know why legislation mired in controversy wasn’t subject to full debate in the Senate? Why were the Senate Republicans allowed to bully Democrats into submission? Maybe Democrats don’t want to look weak on national security right before a major midterm election. But, in the end, are they more interested in facades than facts?

Here are some facts. According to the Associated Press, those parts of the Patriot Act given a reprieve for another year “Authorize court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones, Allow court-appointed seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations, and permit surveillance against a so-called ‘lone wolf,’ a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.”

Boiled down to the lowest common denominator, all three provisions amount to neutering the Fourth Amendment, as well as eradicating the legal presumption of innocence.

But, facts aren’t always convenient. Just ask Mr. Cheney. After all, it is he trying to convince us that the U.S. is no safer today, under President Obama, than it was before 9/11, despite the Patriot Act, so why then should the law that was conceived, and launched on Cheney’s watch continue to see the light of day?

Yet, after a historic televised debate on the need to overhaul national health care and in the quiet of the night, a gang of fear-mongerers were allowed to shout down, by voice vote, changes that would have provided a modicum of insulation against FBI, and law enforcement excesses making one thing crystal clear: Congress is now a refuge for cowards.

With any luck, the three important parts of the Patriot Act just extended will meet their maker next February, but not unless Democrats draw a line in the sand. There can be no national security where there is erosion of constitutional protections.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.