From the beginning of the week, we were told the bill was a done deal and a vote was due at any moment. In the House, leadership even imposed what is known as the "martial law" rule to allow for the option of a quick debate and vote with only an hour's notice.
Proponents of the bill circulated press talking points touting "major" changes to the Patriot Act, despite the exclusion of the the most needed protections in the power to secretly search your personal records. This double-talk is actually a sign of the times, and a signal of how much has changed in four years: Public alarm about the far-reaching, intrusive powers in the Patriot Act is now so widespread that even its proponents must claim their reauthorization bill adds checks and balances.
The danger of this rhetorical shift is that it may lead people to trust in protections that have not yet been restored. In reality the new bill, unless modified, would leave the privacy of everyday Americans easily subject to invasion by federal agents, agents who would not need to establish any connection between the records they sought and a suspected terrorist.
The next few weeks will be critical in determining whether these most essential reforms will be included in the final bill. Now, more than ever, it is important to write letters to the editor thanking Members of Congress who have courageously stood up to the Bush Administration to insist on these reforms. And to call their local offices, thank them and urge them to stick to their guns.
You can expect to see news stories in which congressional sources claim the sticking point in the negotiations is the exact length of the "sunset" (expiration) on a few powers, such as Section 215. But, don't let that spin deceive you.
A majority in both houses of Congress already agree that four years makes sense only the White House and its allies want a longer period that takes the spotlight off this administration.
And a four-year extension won't make these unconstitutional intrusions more constitutional and certainly won't fix the NSL power, which is currently permanent.
That's why the real issue is whether Congress will stand up for your privacy and insist on a connection between any records sought and a suspected terrorist. It's only common sense.