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Now is the Time for Reform — Not Authorizing More Abusive Government Surveillance!

The passage of H.R. 1800 would mean immense unchecked government authority.
Robyn Greene,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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May 10, 2011

Later this month, three of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire: Section 215 orders; the roving “John Doe” wiretap provision; and the “lone wolf” provision. Rep. James Sensenbrenner has just introduced H.R. 1800, a bill that would reauthorize roving “John Doe” wiretaps and 215 orders for an incredible six years, and would make the unused “lone wolf” provision permanent! These three provisions are extremely troubling, as they are ripe for abuses such as surveillance of innocent people, and racial and religious profiling.

If this bill passes, it would mean that until 2017, the government would have nearly unchecked authority and be subject to little congressional oversight for issuing 215 orders that allow the government to demand “any tangible thing” during an investigation, including credit reports, medical records, business records and even library records — all without any suspicion of wrongdoing. The government would have the same unchecked authority to place roving wiretaps on essentially any phone line, without getting a warrant for a specific, identified individual first.

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s bill would also permanently reauthorize the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the government to conduct surveillance on a non-U.S. person, even where that person has no connection to a terrorist organization. The proposed bill would preclude any real congressional oversight of the government’s use of this authority, and shielding the government from accountability. This provision has proven to be an unnecessary grant of power, as it hasn’t been used a single time since it was passed into law seven years ago.

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s repeated claims that there have been no abuses of Patriot Act are misleading and miss the point of what an “abuse” is. Despite the fact that it is almost impossible to identify individual victims of Patriot Act abuses because these surveillance programs are conducted in secret, several reports have revealed rampant abuse by the FBI, and the courts have even ruled some sections of the Patriot Act unconstitutional. But even more importantly, every time the government spies on a person who isn’t suspected of doing anything wrong, it violates the Fourth Amendment, and that is without a doubt, an “abuse.” H.R. 1800 authorizes the government to continue those abuses for years to come.

In the 10 years since Congress passed the Patriot Act, we have seen reports of continuous abuses of power. These authorities comprehensively undermine one of the bedrocks of our democracy — the right to be free from government surveillance. Despite this, Rep. Sensenbrenner seeks to reauthorize the Patriot Act without amendment and punt further oversight activities a full six years down the road. H.R. 1800 is nothing more than yet another affront to our right to privacy.

With these three provisions set to expire at the end of the month, now is the time to demand more oversight from Congress on all Patriot Act authorities, not less, and to either amend these provisions or allow them to expire. Congress is holding a hearing on the Patriot Act on Wednesday, and considering H.R. 1800 on Thursday. Take action and demand reform now!

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