News Analysis

Congress is taking up the renewal of various provisions of the USA Patriot Act amid persistent concerns about the law’s antidemocratic character and sweeping reach. These concerns were no doubt heightened by last week’s revelation that law-abiding groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and United for Peace and Justice were recently spied on by the FBI.

The Bush administration rammed the Patriot Act through Congress about a month after the 9/11 tragedy, without hearings or debate. When the dust cleared, Congress found that it had passed a law that severely curtails constitutional rights.

Almost immediately, grassroots activists went to work to undo the damage. Over the past four years, nearly 400 city councils, including those from most of the nation’s largest cities, and four state legislatures passed resolutions denouncing the act and calling for its repeal in whole or in part. (See the list at

On July 13, the House Intelligence Committee, bowing to pressure from the act’s critics, added language requiring FBI agents who conduct “roving wiretaps” on targets of their investigations to report all of telephone numbers they listen in on to the judge who issues the warrant. Committee members also agreed to a 2010 “sunset” expiration of the “lone wolf clause,” which allows the government to open terrorism investigations against people who are not known to be a member of any group.

At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee moved to extend the provisions that allow surveillance of library and bookstore activity, and those authorizing the roving wiretaps, for another five years.

On the Senate side, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed legislation July 14 that would require more public reporting of the results of investigations authorized under the act. The bill would also preserve some of the sunset clauses.

None of these things amount to much. The most dangerous aspects of the Patriot Act are still intact. These include a definition of “terrorism” so broad that it could be used against almost any person involved in labor and civil rights struggles, for example. Terrorism is defined as any action by two or more persons that “appears to be intended” to influence government policy by illegal acts that could lead to violence.

Another major threat to democracy embodied in the act is the weakening of regular judiciary in favor of a highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Despite the public outcry, the Bush administration continues to push for expanding the repressive law’s scope. Two years ago, the Center for Public Integrity revealed a plan to promote a “Patriot Act II,” which would, among other things, empower the government to strip native-born U.S. citizens of their citizenship and deport them if the powers that be did not like their political associations. Bush recently succeeded in passing legislation to permit the executive branch to write its own search warrants in “terrorism” cases without going to a federal judge.

At its 2001 national convention, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution pointing out the threat posed by Patriot Act. The convention resolution called some of the initiatives in the act “disturbing,” and noted, “collectively, they emit the air of authoritarianism.”

Efforts to repeal the misnamed Patriot Act, and to expand democracy, have never been more important.