What You Should Know
On May 26, 2011, Congress passed a four-year extension of three expiring Patriot Act provisions without making much-needed changes to the overly broad surveillance bill. The extended provisions are set now set to expire on June 1, 2015. 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.
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Despite the many amendments to these laws since 9/11, Congress and the public have yet to receive real information about how these powerful tools are being used to collect information on Americans and how that information is being used. All of these laws work together to create a surveillance superstructure – and Congress must understand how it really works to create meaningful protections for civil liberties.
The ACLU's recent report, Reclaiming Patriotism, provides more information on parts of the Patriot Act that need to be amended. The three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act give the government sweeping authority to spy on individuals inside the United States, and in some cases, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. All three should be allowed to expire if they are not amended to include privacy protections to protect personal information from government overreach.
The bill also fails to amend other portions of the Patriot Act in dire need of reform, most notably those relating to the issuance and use of national security letters (NSLs). NSLs permit the government to obtain the communication, financial and credit records of anyone deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation even if that person is not suspected of unlawful behavior. Numerous Department of Justice Inspector General reports have confirmed that tens of thousands of these letters are issued every year and they are used to collect information on people two and three times removed from a terrorism suspect. NSLs also come with a nondisclosure requirement that precludes a court from determining whether the gag is necessary to protect national security. The NSL provisions should be amended so that they collect information only on suspected terrorists and the gag should be modified to permit meaningful court review for those who wish to challenge nondisclosure orders.
The Patriot Act debate is far from over.