(this post is published in full at Roll Call, and is excerpted below.)
Earlier this month, the Washington Post touted the Obama administration’s “increasing confiden[ce] that it has struck a balance between protecting civil liberties, honoring international law and safeguarding the country.” The USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week provides ample evidence that the civil liberties side of the scale is getting short shrift.
It is troubling enough that the bill fails to add meaningful safeguards to a set of powers granted – often over strenuous Democratic opposition – during the Bush administration. These powers enable the government to obtain vast amounts of private information about Americans who have no ties to terrorism or espionage whatsoever.
But even more disheartening is last week’s revelation that the Obama administration, while publicly claiming to be open to increased civil liberties protections in the bill, had been lobbying Congress in secret to remove them. Some of these proposed (and now rejected) protections were identical to measures supported by then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in 2005.
As if Obama’s stealthy about-face didn’t provide enough cause for concern, Senate Democrats proved all too eager to follow his lead, jettisoning without a second thought their erstwhile objections to these overbroad authorities. Just three years ago, committee members unanimously endorsed a provision to help prevent abuses of National Security Letters – a tool that enables the FBI to collect private records about Americans without a warrant. The very same provision was able to garner only four votes this year.
Few observers had anticipated this result. To the contrary, many had hoped that the need to consider reauthorizing three expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act would lead to a thorough public debate over the full range of existing surveillance powers. In the years since 9/11, these powers have been adopted or modified piecemeal, usually hurriedly, often in response to a crisis and frequently in secret. Congress could have taken this opportunity to consider the big picture, to map out a responsible, comprehensive policy that comports with our shared interests in liberty and national security…
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