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No, Virginia, It's Not the Sunset Clause

Lisa Graves,
Legislative Counsel
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December 9, 2005

Representatives returned to Washington this week, for the White House Christmas party. One unintended effect of this winter tradition is that it often extends the session. Rather than wrap up legislative work and recess well before Thanksgiving, leaders figure that powerful politicians will be back in town the first week of December for the big party, so why not mix business with pleasure and try to pass some bills?

At this year’s party some Members of Congress were apparently mixing punch and the Patriot Act. Under the mistletoe, several leaders were approached about signing on to the reauthorization bill that has attracted so much controversy for its failure to protect the privacy rights of innocent Americans.

It was reported that the Vice President himself – on leave from his undisclosed location and working the crowd without Scooter Libby at his side – was persuaded to intervene to secure a four-year sunset on three powers related to the Patriot Act.

But this focus on the length of the sunets is all part of the Washington spin to try to recast the impasse in late November. The tactic was to claim the big sticking point was whether to extend some powers for four years or for seven. What a false and fabricated controversy!

The sunset “dispute” was just another bargaining tactic by the master chessmen in the administration to try to avoid all meaningful limits on the expanded secret powers they found in their stockings just after the 9/11 attacks.

Even as the Justice Department acknowledges that the power to demand personal records has been used in the case of innocent Americans unconnected to suspected foreign terrorists, they resist every effort to protect these people from such fishing expeditions. Fortunately, several Members of the Patriot conference committee stood firm. They refused to go along with the fiction that Cheney’s merry intervention had miraculously fixed the fundamental flaws in the Patriot Act.

The House was poised to vote this week, as part of the administration’s well-planned pageant of events. But at the last minute a few signatures were missing on the report to be filed – probably just due to logistics – and so the House vote will be early next week.

A bipartisan group of Senators reiterated their intention to stop this flawed bill in the Senate next week. Their courage in the face of the arm-twisting and posturing has been inspiring! Meanwhile the Senate leadership wants to force a vote on Wednesday, collaborating in an obvious White House PR campaign to time the vote with a major speech on terrorism that day.

Given that the administration has issued tens of thousands of National Security Letters, one wonders if the speech will claim that tens of thousands of terrorists have been identified on our shores. Highly unlikely, even for an administration that gave a major stump speech this summer claiming their had been hundreds of terrorism prosecutions when the actual number was a couple dozen.

What we do know is that thousands of Americans’ personal records are in FBI databases where they will be “maintained,” in the words of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, even if they have no connection to a suspected foreign terrorist.

It would have been so easy for Congress to fix this flaw and protect the privacy of ordinary Americans. But some do not want any such limits on the federal government’s power.

It’s up to the American people in the next few days to speak out loud and clear that they expect lawmakers to protect their privacy and liberty, from those with nice intentions as well as naughty.

It doesn’t matter which party controls the White House: No administration should be able to secretly gather sensitive personal records about innocent Americans with no connection to suspected terrorists. That’s not a list we want anyone making … or checking twice.

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