Reform the Patriot Act

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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Reclaiming Patriotism: A Call to Reconsider the Patriot Act

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.

  • Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain "any tangible thing" relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no showing that the "thing" pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require the government to show reasonable suspicion or probable cause before undertaking an investigation that infringes upon a person's privacy. Congress must ensure that things collected with this power have a meaningful nexus to suspected terrorist activity or it should be allowed to expire.
  • Section 206 of the Patriot Act, also known as "roving John Doe wiretap" provision, permits the government to obtain intelligence surveillance orders that identify neither the person nor the facility to be tapped. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require government to state with particularity what it seeks to search or seize. Section 206 should be amended to mirror similar and longstanding criminal laws that permit roving wiretaps, but require the naming of a specific target. Otherwise, it should expire.
  • Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or the so-called "Lone Wolf" provision, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-US persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization. Such an authorization, granted only in secret courts is subject to abuse and threatens our longtime understandings of the limits of the government's investigatory powers within the borders of the United States. This provision has never been used and should be allowed to expire outright.

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.

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