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May 26, 2011

Understanding the Patriot Act "Sunsets"
Many people do not understand what is at stake in the upcoming votes on the Patriot Act Sunsets and the various sections that go against the Constitution. When engaging in conversations about the Patriot Act, consider the following points:

  The USA Patriot Act gives the government broad powers to secretly collect information (like medical, travel, hotel, library or financial records) about innocent Americans without probable cause.

  The law contains "sunset" provisions, under which certain sections expire by the end of 2005 unless Congress chooses to renew them.

  Some in Congress want to make the entire law permanent and expand it to give federal agents even broader access to our personal records.

Regardless of how you come down on the Patriot Act, you have to admit one thing: The Constitution is always more vulnerable when our national security is in danger.

  During World War II, for instance, our government locked up 125,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens based only on their race, even though the vast majority were loyal to the United States.

  During the Cold War, the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy and others used guilt by association to attack innocent people and chill the exercise of civil liberties.

  The Patriot Act and similar policies are more subtle than the Japanese internments and McCarthy's tactics, but no less dangerous. By law, they give the White House a lot more power at the expense of Congress and the courts and undermine the structural checks and balances intended to safeguard our liberty.

  It is an American tradition dating back to our founding to have a healthy skepticism of too much concentrated or unchecked power in the hands of any person.


We need to make modest changes to the Patriot Act to keep us both safe and free. We need to make sure that these extraordinary powers are focused on preventing terrorism, not on secretly searching the records of ordinary Americans.

Two examples of what we need to fix:

  Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no showing that the “thing” pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require the government to show reasonable suspicion or probable cause before undertaking an investigation that infringes upon a person’s privacy. Congress must ensure that things collected with this power have a meaningful nexus to suspected terrorist activity or it should be allowed to expire.

  National Security Letters permit the government to obtain the communication, financial and credit records of anyone deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation even if that person is not suspected of unlawful behavior. Numerous Department of Justice Inspector General reports have confirmed that tens of thousands of these letters are issued every year and they are used to collect information on people two and three times removed from a terrorism suspect. NSLs also come with a nondisclosure requirement that precludes a court from determining whether the gag is necessary to protect national security. The NSL provisions should be amended so that they collect information only on suspected terrorists and the gag should be modified to permit meaningful court review for those who wish to challenge nondisclosure orders.

  "It's a free country!" is more than just a punch line. America is the freest nation in the world. Whether you're from a "blue" state or a "red" one, we all share certain universal values, like fairness, equality and a belief in the importance of checks and balances on government power.

  The Patriot Act threatens these values. That's why people from both ends of the political spectrum are joining forces to hold Congress's feet to the fire, to force our elected representatives to take a sober second look at the Patriot Act four years after September 11, 2001.

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