Leaders in the U.S. Congress pushed through a renewal of three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act late last Thursday night, May 26, reauthorizing them with no substantive change until 2015.
Despite earlier plans to debate the provisions for a week, Senate leaders seemed unwilling to risk the powers expiring and instead used procedural maneuvers to pass the extension with minimal debate or discussion. After engaging in contentious procedural moves of his own, Senator Rand Paul was able to introduce two amendments to the bill. Debate on his amendments was brief and neither was accepted. The House in turn allowed 30 minutes of discussion before passing its own version. President Obama signed the bill into law just before the midnight expiration using an “autopen,” as he was out of the country.
Due to expire were the “lone wolf” provision, the roving wiretaps provision, and the “library records provision” (Section 215). Although Congress has previously made several provisions of the PATRIOT Act permanent, these three provisions were considered so expansive and controversial that Congress has extended them only temporarily, revisiting them every few years to determine whether their usefulness outweighed the risk of abuse.
ARL joined the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a broad coalition of privacy and civil liberties groups in asking for moderate reforms to these provisions, especially Section 215, which is often called the “library records provision” because it allows federal agents to demand library records without a standard warrant. We endorsed Senator Patrick Leahy’s bill, S. 193, which would have created new protections for library records, among other things. The Leahy bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, but was incommensurable with the most prominent House bill, which had no reform and would have made one of the expiring powers permanent.
Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall raised a disturbing issue in the run-up to the bill’s passage: based on confidential briefings they receive from the intelligence agencies, the senators claim there are “secret interpretations” of Section 215 that the government is relying on to conduct expansive domestic spying operations that Senators Wyden and Udall say would shock the public if they were exposed. While they were not able to introduce their amendment to require disclosure of these secret interpretations of the law, Wyden and Udall did win a promise from the Senate Intelligence Committee that it would hold hearings on the issue.
Senator Leahy has reintroduced his reforms as a standalone bill, and Senators Wyden and Udall will likely do something similar. ARL will continue to support these and other common sense proposals. Congress should restore the balance between the government’s need for surveillance and the public’s rights of privacy and free inquiry.
More representatives opposed this reauthorization than in any previous vote, but the majority was still overwhelmingly in favor of extension. Privacy advocates have a lot of work to do before the next vote. You can see how your representatives voted at the links below:
Senate Roll Call (Note: the title of the bill is misleading. In order to rush the bill through, Senate leadership substituted the text of the PATRIOT reauthorization for a small business bill.)