(updated below - Update II)
When Congress enacted the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it provided for a four-year expiration date for some of the more controversial provisions. In 2005, when it was time for Congress to decide if those should be extended, the Bush administration insisted that none of those powers had been abused yet (like everything) they were critical to fighting Terrorism. As a result, the Congress thus overwhelmingly voted to extend them for four more years, though this time they required the issuance of a report from the Inspector General of the Justice Depratment to determine if there had, in fact, been any abuses. Unsurprisingly, the IG's Report that issued in 2007 and 2008 documented extreme abuse at the FBI with many of those powers. Moreover, it was recently revealed that, far more often than not, federal law enforcement agencies use these powers (including the pernicious "sneak and peek" searches) in cases having nothing whatsoever to do with Terrorism.
As a result, there are currently bills pending in Congress to significantly limit -- or at least impose added safeguards on -- many of the powers vested by the Patriot Act, as well as by last year's FISA Amendments Act. Independently, Senators Feingold and Dodd have sponsored a bill to reverse the immunity bestowed last year by Congress on lawbreaking telecoms. The Senate Judiciary Committee meets today to begin the process of debating these various bills. Numerous civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum have joined together to form a coalition to advocate for these reforms, and have put together a helpful page of information here. Julian Sanchez at Cato has a very helpful review of the various provisions here, and the ACLU's primary pages for these reforms are here and here.
My guest on Salon Radio today to talk about all of this -- including what the White House has been doing, or not doing, on these matters -- is Mike German, long-time former FBI agent and current Policy Counsel at the ACLU. Our discussion is roughly 20 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below. A transcript will be posted later today.
UPDATE: German, who -- in our discussion this morning -- was mildly optimistic about the prospect for some positive reform (more than I was), just sent me this email:
I wanted to give you an update regarding the markup of the Leahy-Cardin-Kaufman Patriot Act Sunset Reauthorization bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning. My optimism may have been misplaced. The Committee just passed without objection a Leahy-Feinstein substitute that further watered-down the civil liberties protections in the bill (which were already not as comprehensive as the Feingold-Durbin bill). There is still a chance amendments can be made to insert provisions of the Feingold bill, but the starting point is much closer to the status quo. Quite disappointing.
I will keep you updated...
For the reasons I discuss with him in the podcast, that does not surprise me at all.
UPDATE II: Isn't it so interesting how the phrase "Patriot Act" was the symbol of everything Democrats claimed to find so heinous during the Bush years, but now that there's a Democratic President, Senate and Congress, it's absolutely certain that the Patriot Act will continue, and civil libertarians are reduced to hoping that there may be some tiny modifications to it, and even that's highly unlikely?