As the end of the year approaches, Congress is facing a looming deadline: three sections of the infamous USA Patriot Act are due to sunset on December 31. Since it was rushed through Congress just 45 days after September 11, the Patriot Act has paved the way for the expansion of government-sponsored surveillance including the gutting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow dragnet collection of Americans’ communications. Over the last eight years, numerous expansions of executive authority have worked in tandem to infringe upon Americans’ rights.
As the ACLU has testified last week, we’re pushing Congress to undertake a comprehensive reform of the Patriot Act and urging both chambers to revisit other surveillance laws now while they consider the three expiring provisions. There are currently two bills pending in the Senate to address the expiring Patriot Act provisions: the JUSTICE Act, introduced by Senators Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Durbin (D-Ill.) and the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy (D-Vt.).
The Senate Judiciary Committee is due to mark up Senator Leahy’s bill on Thursday. That bill is certainly a step in the right direction, but we believe that the JUSTICE Act, with its comprehensive approach to surveillance, is the bill Congress should pass. We’re urging members of the committee to vote for any JUSTICE Act amendments that may be added to Senator Leahy’s bill during the markup. In the end, it’s not enough to simply add safeguards to a few sections of the Patriot Act — we need broader privacy and civil liberties protections to reform the whole Act as well as other overreaching surveillance laws passed in recent years.