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The Business of America is Freedom

Lisa Graves,
Legislative Counsel
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October 14, 2005

Our efforts to reform the worst parts of the Patriot Act, which allow too much government access to sensitive personal records without any facts connecting them to a foreign terrorist, were given a big boost this week.

The U.S Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Realtors, the Association of Corporate Counsel, Business Civil Liberties, and the Financial Services Roundtable all came out in support of reforming Sections 215 and 505 of the Patriot Act.

Their public support could not have come at a better time. Senate and House staff are meeting this week and next to hammer out the details of what will be our last opportunity this year to bring the Patriot Act in line with the Constitution.

The letter is available online here.

This is an exciting development and one that helped spur more than two dozen members of Congress to join letters calling for reform of the provisions of concern to the business community. With the call for reform from major business interests, senators and representatives can return to their districts with news that they supported key reforms to the Patriot Act sought by a broad range of constituents.

While many individuals have demanded protections for their medical records, financial records, library or subscription/membership records, now the corporate community has joined the call for common sense protections from unwarranted searches of their customers’ records by the government. And they’ve done it for the same reason as all of us: the government should have some specific and articulable facts linking the subject of an investigation to a suspected foreign terrorist.

This dramatic convergence of consumer and business interests earned significant coverage in the press. Notably, it parallels the right-left coalition forged by unlikely bedfellows from across the political spectrum who may not agree on many issues but strongly agree on the need to improve and reform the Patriot Act.

While we all agree the government needs effective tools to fight terrorism, we also know that Patriot Act reform will prevent our limited investigative resources from being squandered on fishing expeditions or wild goose chases that would distract us from real threats to our security.

Of particular note in this week’s letter is the rejection by corporate America of the government’s classic argument in the Patriot Act debate: that we don’t actually have a privacy interest in records held by a hotel, business or other third party, and so they shouldn’t receive any heightened protection under the law. The ACLU strongly disagrees, and many laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or HIPAA) suggest that Congress does too.

Of course, the business community also stood up for the sanctity of its own records. The fact is that there is nothing in the Patriot Act to prevent the FBI or the Defense Department from using the secret powers expanded by the Patriot Act to peruse records about business practices, trade secrets, proprietary issues, research and development, privileged information conveyed to legal counsel, or even information about employees or customers. And, the government would be able to do so secretly, and without any facts connecting the records sought to a suspected terrorist.

Threats to core civil liberties affect all of us. That’s clearly why we keep seeing unusual alliances, like corporate America and the ACLU, on the side of modestly reforming the Patriot Act to make sure that when the government looks at, say, consumer records or privileged communications with outside counsel, it has a good reason for doing so. We welcome and thank the business community for bringing its voice into the mix.

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