Good news, bad news on Patriot Act

News Analysis

By the end of this year, 16 items in the USA Patriot Act were due to expire, or “sunset,” and for more than a year civil liberties activists and administration supporters have been squaring off for the big fight.

Months ago, President Bush had called for the 16 provisions to be made permanent, claiming that they were necessary for the “war against terrorism.” On the other hand, civil liberties activists had managed to get nearly 400 city, town and county legislatures, plus those of four states, to pass strongly worded resolutions calling for the entire Patriot Act, or significant parts of it, to be repealed.

When it came down to a vote on July 21 in the House and July 29 in the Senate, there were no big advances for either side. Dubious parliamentary maneuvers were used by the Republican majority to suppress pro-civil-liberties amendments offered by independent Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), some Democrats and even some Republicans.

The bill supported by Bush passed the House 257-171, with 43 Democrats supporting the bill and 14 Republicans opposing. In the Senate, a slightly more progressive version passed as a bipartisan compromise. The two versions have now been sent to a House-Senate conference committee. But whatever comes out of that, the Patriot Act is still in force and still represents a danger to everyone’s civil liberties.

Its most dangerous aspects, namely its overbroad definition of terrorism (which could be adapted to crack down on labor and civil rights activists); its effort to reduce or eliminate independent federal judicial review of FBI investigations, searches and seizures; and its substitution of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for the regular, independent federal courts in getting approval for investigative activities such as secret searches, are all still in place.

However, the government lost on a few points. The effort by the Bush administration to give itself the authority to write its own search warrants (rather than having to ask a judge to issue a warrant) was not tacked on to either version. But the administration is still seeking that power through separate legislation.

In the House version, the time the government has after executing a “sneak and peek” warrant (under Section 213 of the act) to notify the person whose premises were entered was reduced to seven days from three months, but the text allows the government to extend this on its own say-so that such an extension is necessary.

Also, the director of the FBI now has to approve requests by subordinates to demand library or bookstore records, which is hardly a bulwark against FBI abuses. The Senate version requires a periodic report to the public by the executive branch on how its right to view library and other confidential records has been used.

A little more tinkering like this has been included, and some of the sunsetting was extended four more years (e.g., roving wiretaps, or the right to get a warrant to tap any phone a certain individual might use, rather than a specific phone number, and the right to seize library and other records, by the Senate). In the House, the sunsetting of this provision was continued for 10 years. In other cases, items due to sunset were made permanent, and nothing will be allowed to sunset itself out of existence.

The fight to educate the public on the issue and to repeal the Patriot Act goes on. As I write, a group in Illinois has announced a campaign to get the Illinois General Assembly to approve an anti-Patriot Act resolution, which would be the largest state to do so if successful. Many towns, cities and states have similar campaigns. To read resolutions against the act and other interesting materials, go to the web site BORDC.org.