The Sun Must Go Down on the Patriot Act

This piece originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Not long after the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, I had dinner with the late Senator Paul Wellstone in Washington, who was a stalwart defender of civil liberties throughout his career. I asked him how he could have possibly voted for a law that so vastly expanded the government’s spying powers. He told me that he was facing a tough election, but as soon as it was over he’d invite my organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, to testify before Congress about the Patriot Act’s flaws and the threats it presented to privacy and civil liberties. “We’ll work together to get this repealed,” he promised. Unfortunately, that day never came, as the senator tragically died in a plane crash in October of 2002. 

Almost 13 years later, the most egregious part of the Patriot Act, Section 215 – which underlies the National Security Agency’s call-records program – is scheduled to expire on June 1. Some legislators want Congress to reauthorize it in its current form – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has just introduced a bill that would do exactly that, extending it for another five years. Others want to make relatively minor changes. Congress shouldn’t do either of these things. Unless Congress can coalesce around far-reaching reform, it should simply let the provision expire.

Almost 13 years later, the most egregious part of the Patriot Act, Section 215 – which underlies the NSA’s call-records program – is scheduled to expire on June 1. Unless Congress can coalesce around far-reaching reform, it should simply let the provision expire.

Congress hurriedly enacted the Patriot Act just weeks after the September 2001 attacks. Few legislators read the 321 pages of proposed legislation; many simply concluded that the political climate necessitated that they vote for the bill, even if they didn’t understand it.

Predictably, the Patriot Act has been at the root of many of the most serious abuses of government spying powers. It was the Patriot Act the FBI relied on to vastly expand its use of “national security letters,” which the FBI now issues thousands of times every year to obtain information about innocent Americans who have no connection to terrorism. It was the Patriot Act the government relied on to conduct clandestine searches in investigations having nothing to do with terrorism. It was the Patriot Act the government invoked to permit the FBI to disregard the Fourth Amendment’s usual requirements – criminal probable cause, a particularized warrant – in ordinary law enforcement investigations. And it’s the Patriot Act the government is now using to justify the NSA’s call-records program.

mass surveillance under the Patriot Act 

The NSA uses Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect information – who called whom, when, and for how long – about most phone calls made or received on U.S. telephone networks. The surveillance is staggering in its scope and many, including the legislator who wrote the Patriot Act, believe the surveillance is unlawful. The surveillance is also, apparently, ineffective. Both a review group appointed by the president as well as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded, after analysis of classified files, that there was no evidence at all that the NSA’s massive surveillance program had ever played a pivotal role in any investigation.

Allowing Section 215 to sunset is a crucial first step if we want to ensure that this unlawful and ineffective surveillance finally ends. 

The current sunset debate is our first opportunity as a society to grapple with the mass-surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden, and we can’t afford to let this opportunity pass us by. The whole point of including sunset provisions in the original Patriot Act was to force Congress – and the country – to reconsider the government’s surveillance powers once more was known about their implications for civil liberties. Now we understand at least some of these implications – and they’re chilling. If we don’t allow Section 215 to sunset, we risk making permanent a “new normal” of government surveillance and extending surveillance programs that haven’t yet been – and may never be – disclosed to the public.

The Patriot Act’s upcoming expiration date gives us a new opportunity to make good on Senator Wellstone’s promise. Letting the provisions sunset would protect Americans’ privacy without compromising security. It would also be a first step towards the kind of systemic reform we desperately need – reform that would end the government’s dragnet surveillance practices, foreclose warrantless surveillance of Americans’ communications, require a degree of transparency about programs that haven’t yet been disclosed, and subject those as-yet-undisclosed programs to judicial review. 

Equally important, letting the provisions sunset would send a broader message that, after more than a decade in which national security could be invoked to justify the unconstrained expansion of virtually any government power, Americans are committed to restoring common-sense limits on the government’s national security powers and requiring that our intelligence agencies operate without disregard for privacy and civil liberties.

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Anonymous

The only reason any reasonable public servant would vote for the extension of any particular part or in whole of the Patriot Act, in my mind, would be due to BLACKMAIL. I am sure that there are skeletons in many a closet on Capitol Hill.

Anonymous a gre...

I will always suspect the Paul W. was assassinated by something put on/in his plane-Flying home after reaming congress, makes me very suspicious.
Just like Stanley Meyers-[water for gas] dropped dead outside his restaurant, with no autopsy- ?? Columbus Ohio-
When the graven images on the dollars become corporate idols-[as today] we're all in trouble-" stand for truth--or fall for anything" [dennis kuchinic- when he was 19 years old-- a grey eagle

Shrek

Skeletons are spooky!

Anonymous-a gre...

Rove's so called "Patriot Act" is directly responsible for the slaughter of my tree cutter-Gilbert Rush- and others including the old lady who fired at intruders, not knowing they were police with the wrong address! "No Knock Warrants" goes beyond anything I've ever known in this country-To a military type paranoia. FCC giving control to FTC [for sales]allowing the PUBLIC'S airways to be open for extreme negative attention-that these dastardly groups can commit-or children killing children for attention-and Spite-for the positive attention they never got at home. Mrs. Montessori-and child psychologist-Dr. Spock showed the way to healthy children-1950s-television arrived as a teaching tool- now it only teaches blood ,sex, and gore- uncontrolled facebook broadcasts teach- bullying-rape-+the targeting of young folks for pedophiles-SHAME ON CORPORATE/POLITICAL>> GREED !! a grey eagle

Raymond Babcock

Wow what a government.

Sandra Kirkland

The Patriot Act never should have been passed in the first place. It was contrived and voted on when the nation was in a state of mass hysteria, compounded by active propaganda from the government. The Patriot Act, in effect, has run roughshod over our most basic freedoms as guaranteed in the US Constitution. Let it die.

Mrunalini

Stop Mass Surveillance/spying ? How do you think the sly 3 lettered organizations
interpret that ? Could they interpret it as you prefer individual surveillance ?
Are we cowards to say 'Stop surveilling me' ? Are we afraid to talk about
the 24/7 physical surveillance that people are subjected to, and hence we are chosing
to talk about the online surveillance ? Don't you think that the online meta data
is used for physical surveillance ? And what do you think comes after
the physical and online surveillance ? Heard of technology in military that
is used to train pigeons ? Heard of that covert technology being used on humans
covertly? That taken to the next level to hurt normal people with
covert technology, physically in various ways including sexually ? Is that what comes
after surveillance, once you get used to being surveilled, in the
privacy of your own home/apartment, not in a prison. What part of this sounds
like freedom to you ? All, in the name of national security, with various twists.

If you cannot believe it, imagine the state of people being forced to go through
it, in and out of their homes forever. Crazy? Yes, that is what they call people
who defend freedom from this kind of abuse.

In the name of national security, or some other excuse, these sly abusive
organizations might sometimes have the right to surveill people. But they
don't have the right to covertly abuse people using advanced technology.
However they are, because they have the power to misuse the little surveillance
right they might have.

Are we afraid of talking about the covert technology that these organizations
have been using, just because we cannot prove it or is it because these
organizations will find a way to say that we are mentally ill ? Either way
not being able to say Stop abusing me and stop surveilling me sounds
like a lack of freedom to me by all standards.

If not the covert abuse, 24/7 surveillance itself is hard to deal with. People
surveilling you, contantly mocking you, verbally, visually and otherwise.
Can this lead to someone scream for freedom, yet, mocked about it? Will a person
going through this surveillance contemplate a suicide ? Dead people cannot talk.
How many lives will constant surveillance take in the name of national security,
before we get brave enough to ackowlege the freedom people ought to have ?

So, who are these people who surveill someone 24/7 ? Is it possible that many
people who were surveilled since many years succumb to the abuse and out of no choice,
become the ones who gang up against others in a hope to find solace in each other,
if not freedom? And is it possible that some of those who seek freedom, yet do
not know how to restore it, end up killing others or themselves?

Anyone who has worked for a public sector company that has access to govt.
funds and public ssn#s will know that 'covert abuse' along with direct surveillance
is engraved into America nowadays. When hurt covertly, people all along have
wondered, 'how do they do that ?' If everyone has who wondered about it, fought
to not be part of it, we would have been in a better state now. However, a great
extent of these public sector employees, along with their family and friends are
abused in and out of work, 24/7 and forever. Not because they are terrorists or criminals,
Some feel it, some dont. Sometimes, it might be too late if you realized that
you cannot deal with it and want to quit. Because these jobs pay to own you,
your families and friends life, not just for the work you do for them. .

There is much more to surveillance and covert technological abuse. But to the least,
if not for ACLU, who can get warrants to investigate the abuse by covert technology,
and the unaccountable suicides? With covert technological abuse and surveillance,
life is a lost hope in America. Freedom is for those who seek it. Or, was it supposed
to be a right? Isnt it time to restore our rights?

Anonymous

whats the bid deal let them do it, they only check the people they have to. If you are not hiding anything illegal the let the government protect us. They dont check people just to check...

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