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The Civil Liberties Six Become Seven

Tim Edgar,
Washington Legislative Office
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November 18, 2005

As you no doubt have been hearing elsewhere, the Patriot Act railroad express is officially derailed — at least for now. Six senators–three Republicans and three Democrats–who objected to the final “deal” that made the act permanent without meaningful safeguards are saying they have a critical mass to sustain a threatened filibuster if key changes aren’t made.

Those changes? Well, they want 1) a meaningful standard of suspicion linking secret Patriot Act records orders to a suspected foreign terrorist or spy, 2) a meaningful right to challenge the secrecy of national security letters or “NSLs” (FBI records demands without any court review), 3) a rule requiring notice of secret searches in most general criminal cases after something considerably less than a month, and 4) a four-year “sunset” or expiration date on a few key powers so that another review can happen before the end of the decade.

The “civil liberties” six are saying they won’t accept a final deal without real progress, at least, on these priorities. Senator Feingold stood alone in 2001 when he objected to the original Patriot Act–now he’s got a merry, bipartisan band of supporters. And they include some real “odd bedfellows.” It turns out that in rural, conservative states like libertarian Alaska, Second Amendment-haven Idaho, and “live free or die” New Hampshire, lots of conservatives don’t like the federal government having these extraordinary powers to invade personal liberty. So, Feingold has been joined by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Larry Craig (R-ID) and John Sununu (R-NH).

Some are trying to portray the issue as liberals and the ACLU versus security, but that’s getting a little stale with mainstream business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saying the Patriot Act’s provisions on business records are just way too broad.

However, the real bombshell today was Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA). The “civil liberties” six were holding a press conference to announce their opposition to the deal, and Senator Specter showed up to give them a pat on the back. Specter led the Senate negotiators and his staff, which includes many Justice Department detailees, helped craft the deal to extend the Patriot Act without real meaningful safeguards.

But after hearing from so many conservatives, business groups and Republicans, Specter is refusing to sign the conference report and is supporting the call for more changes. The Senate rules would force him to sign if a majority of Senate conferees agrees, but he announced at the press conference that he may well yet support the Sununu/Feingold filibuster without more meaningful reforms.

They are hearing us loud and clear. This turkey of a bill won’t be ready for Thanksgiving as its supporters had hoped. Instead, members are going back to their states and districts for two weeks. If they are hearing from constitutents, they’ll stand firm and demand more changes before passing any bill to extend the Patriot Act. Town halls, letters to the editor, and meetings with members are really going to make the difference now.

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