The Senate voted Monday, May 23, to go forward with debate on reauthorization of several provisions of the Patriot Act. Media reports indicated that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reached agreement on reauthorization of the controversial law.

The agreement would reauthorize parts of the law that allow federal authorities to perform roving wiretaps, examine personal records (such as library records, and a so-called lone wolf provisions that allow the government to apply these provisions to individual suspects who aren’t connected to terrorist organizations).

The move prompted a strong reaction from the civil rights and civil liberties community. In a statement, the Rights Working Group (RWG), a coalition of dozens of local and national civil rights organizations, described the deal as a failure to take steps to protect privacy rights. Each provision requires judicial warrants from secret federal courts to be used by law enforcement authorities.

“The Patriot Act grants the government unfettered surveillance authority.  Congress must seize the opportunity to reform this overbroad legislation that has repeatedly been misused by federal law enforcement to engage in racial profiling of American citizens and residents,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of RWG.

Federal authorities have “repeatedly” abused the roving wiretaps and library records provisions, RWG charged. Because the lone wolf provision has never been used and no authorities have made the case for its continued use, the RWG statement added, it should not be reauthorized.

As a remedy, RWG is seeking three major reforms to the law before reauthorization. Amendments to the reauthorization bill should check the surveillance authority currently allowed under the Patriot act in order to protect civil rights and liberties.

RWG said reauthorization should only occur with the inclusion of the “End Racial Profiling Act,” which prohibits profiling based on race, religion, national origin and ethnicity by law enforcement authorities.

In addition, the Department of Justice should strengthen its Guidance on the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies. This guidance should bolster enforceability of the DOJ’s prohibitions on racial profiling and should include religion and national origin in its guidelines, RWG said.

Racial profiling reduces security and violates Constitutionally protected and internationally protected equal protection and due process rights. According to a fact sheet on the RWG website, racial profiling increase mistrust for law enforcement authorities in targeted populations. This mistrust leads members of those communities to refuse to report other crimes or to come forward as witnesses. Communities are made less safe, RWG reported, citing a 2006 Department of Justice study on the matter.

“The Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, significantly curtailed civil liberties and rights that historically have been protected by the U.S. Constitution,” said Huang. “Instead of reauthorizing the law’s troublesome provisions until 2015, Congress should take the time it needs to amend the law and restore civil rights and civil liberties to all Americans.”



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.