Government Confirms That It Has Secret Interpretation of Patriot Act Spy Powers

The government has just officially confirmed what we've long suspected: there are secret Justice Department opinions about the Patriot Act's Section 215, which allows the government to get secret orders from a special surveillance court (the FISA Court) requiring Internet service providers and other companies to turn over "any tangible things." Just exactly what the government thinks that phrase means remains to be seen, but there are indications that their take on it is very broad.

Late last night we received the first batch of documents from the government in response to our Freedom of Information Act request for any files on its legal interpretation of Section 215. The release coincided with the latest in a string of strong warnings from two senators about how the government has secretly interpreted the law. According to them both, the interpretation would shock not just ordinary Americans, but even their fellow lawmakers not on the intelligence committees.

Although we're still reviewing the documents, we're not holding our breath for any meaningful explanation from the government about its secret take on the Patriot Act. We do know now that there are two memos from the Office of Legal Counsel (the same Justice Department group that issued the torture memos) relating to Section 215. But as has become a routine practice for the Justice Department, the OLC is keeping those memos entirely secret.

This secrecy is overbroad and unnecessary. Americans have a right to know how their government is interpreting public laws, especially when those laws give the government sweeping authority to collect more and more of our personal and private information.

Stay tuned.

Learn more about the Patriot Act: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (5)
Read the Terms of Use


In 2008, Obama promised more government transparency. Like his promise to eliminate the lobbyist revolving door, he has failed to deliver on this.


well articulated.


Well articulated!

China Name Plate

I agree that the Patriot Act should be repealed (indeed – parts of it should be struck down as unconstitutional).

However, the Israeli government did not “decide” to be at war with terrorists.

Jews have been under savage attack in the area since at least the First World War (when whole Jewish communities were wiped out) long before there even was an Israeli government. The Grand Mufti’s alliance with the German National Socialists (including his approving visits to the extermination camps) also started long before the modern state of Israel came into existance.

And today Hamas (and so on) are committed to the extermination of Israel – as is the wider region (one only need look at, for example, Egyption television, including television for children, to know this is so).

Whether a correct interpretation of Islam or not, the education system and media of the region teach people that it is their relgious duty to wipe Israel off the map – to push the Jews into the sea.

Israel is faced with vast forces decicated to genocide – to the extermination of Israel.

That makes the position quite different from the present position of United States.

China Name Plate

The whole security state issue has been one of my abiding gripes toward President Obama. His refusal to investigate, let alone prosecute, Bush era crime, torture, is appalling. His invoking “states secretes” to hinder trails of the accused is well beyond my ethical standard. Democratic Party support for renewing the Patriot Act is as unsurprising as it is appalling.

Stay Informed