Patriot Act Oversight Hearing Highlights Flaws, Increasing Use Of Special Search, Surveillance Powers

April 5, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Today’s oversight hearing on the USA Patriot Act, the 2001 law that removed checks on the government’s ability to collect information on innocent Americans, provided ample evidence that the Patriot Act was passed with undue haste and has been flawed in its implementation, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

That, coupled with evidence of increasing use and abuse of the law, strongly recommends passage of reform legislation like the bipartisan Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act of 2005, which was unveiled today.

“With the Patriot Act, everything points to a grave need for reform,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Not only is the Justice Department using it more and more, but Attorney General Gonzales admitted the need to fix the law, and we have the clearest evidence of Patriot Act abuse to date in the Mayfield case.”

Today’s panel before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the first in an expected series of Congressional oversight hearings on the Patriot Act, parts of which are set to expire by the end of the year unless Congress votes to renew them. In the three years since the law’s passage, a growing and bipartisan group of conservative and progressive critics have called on Congress to reexamine and reform certain troubling parts of the law.

Of particular note, today’s Senate hearing highlighted how the use of the Patriot Act’s secret search and surveillance authority has grown in recent years. Attorney General Gonzales admitted, for instance, that the government has used Section 215, the so-called “library records” provision, 35 times since September 2003. According to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, it had not been used before then.

That said, the ACLU cautiously welcomed certain ostensible concessions from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who agreed to support modifications to Section 215 clarifying that the recipient of a 215 order can consult an attorney and that the records seized must pertain to national security.

The ACLU expressed deep concern, however, with the clearest indications yet of Patriot Act abuse, evidenced in the Brandon Mayfield case. Last year, the FBI falsely implicated Brandon Mayfield, an attorney from Oregon, as a suspect in the Madrid bombing case. Today, the attorney general admitted that the FBI used Patriot Act amendments to an intelligence law, which the made it easier to deploy in criminal cases, to secretly search his home.

“The Mayfield case is a poster child for Patriot Act abuse,” the ACLU’s Nojeim said. “It showcases how the unchecked powers in the law can dramatically compound federal investigative errors and result in serious civil liberties deprivations.”

The ACLU’s letter on how the Patriot Act has been abused and misused is available at:

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