Congress Reauthorizes Overbroad Patriot Act Provisions

February 25, 2010 12:00 am
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Year-Long Extension Contains No Privacy Or Civil Liberties Safeguards

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WASHINGTON – The House today passed a one-year extension of three expiring Patriot Act provisions without making much-needed changes to the overly broad surveillance bill. The provisions of the Patriot Act which were extended – the John Doe roving wiretap provision, Section 215 or the “library records” provision and the never before used “lone wolf” provision – all lack proper privacy safeguards. The Senate passed the extension by voice vote late last night.

“Congress refuses to make reforming the Patriot Act a priority and continues to punt this crucial issue down the road,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Once again, we have missed an opportunity to put the proper civil liberties and privacy protections into this bill. Congress should respect the rule of law and should have taken this opportunity to better protect the privacy and freedom of innocent Americans. We shouldn’t have to live under these unconstitutional provisions for another year.”

Late last year, to avoid expiration on December 31, 2009, Congress extended the provisions through February 28, 2010. Despite bills pending in both the House and the Senate to amend the three expiring provisions and other sections of the Patriot Act, Congress decided instead to move ahead with a straightforward reauthorization.

In addition to reforms needed regarding the three provisions that were just extended, the National Security Letter (NSL) statute, which was broadened with passage of the original Patriot Act, must be narrowed. NSLs allow the FBI to secretly demand personal records about innocent customers from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), communications service providers, financial institutions and credit reporting agencies without suspicion or prior judicial approval. The statute also allows the FBI to bar NSL recipients from disclosing anything about the record demand. Several Patriot Act reauthorization bills introduced last year addressed the need for NSL reform but none of those proposals were acted upon.

Since the Patriot Act’s passage in 2001, there have been several consecutive reports (including one released in January) from the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General that have outlined widespread and blatant abuse of the statute. FBI agents routinely claimed false terrorism emergencies to use “exigent letters,” or emergency letters, in order to gain private records for investigations when no emergency existed. The FBI also regularly issued NSLs after the fact in an attempt to legitimize the use of exigent letters. Even after today’s vote, there remain bills pending in both the House and Senate that were specifically introduced to narrow the scope of the NSL statute.

“Even with another damning report on the FBI’s use of NSLs, Congress couldn’t muster the willpower to give Americans the privacy protections they need,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Though the debate over reauthorizing the Patriot Act may be over this year, Congress still has the power to narrow the use of NSL powers and help avoid such abuses in the future. It’s time to rein in the overbroad power of the NSL and bring the statute back in line with the Constitution.”

In 2004, the ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of an ISP that the FBI served with an NSL. Because the FBI imposed a gag order on the ISP, the lawsuit was filed under seal. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2008 that the gag order provisions were unconstitutional, the “John Doe” NSL recipient in that case remains gagged.

To learn more about the Patriot Act and the ACLU’s work to reform it, go to:

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