On Saturday, February 27th, President Obama signed a one-year extension of the three expiring sections of the USA PATRIOT Act. These sections are Section 215 (the so-called “library records” provision), Section 206 (involving “roving wiretaps”), and Section 207 (the so-called “lone-wolf” provision). Last week, both the House and Senate voted to extend the sections without change, despite the fact that both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees had extensively debated and passed bills last year that would have made significant changes to these provisions. In addition to amending these sections, the House and Senate bills would have added significant limitations to the FBI’s use of National Security Letters. For previous NSJ analysis of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee bills, see here and here.
Congress’s decision to extend these provisions without change has angered many civil liberties advocates, as they view the use of Section 215 and National Security Letters as particularly invasive practices. Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, stated:
Congress refuses to make reforming the Patriot Act a priority and continues to punt this crucial issue down the road. Once again, we have missed an opportunity to put the proper civil liberties and privacy protections into this bill. Congress should respect the rule of law and should have taken this opportunity to better protect the privacy and freedom of innocent Americans. We shouldn’t have to live under these unconstitutional provisions for another year.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, applauded the choice to extend the sections without change, stating:
Recent terror attacks, such as those at Fort Hood and on Christmas Day, demonstrate just how severe of a threat we are facing. This extension keeps Patriot’s security measures in place and demonstrates that there is a growing recognition that these crucial provisions must be preserved.
Senator Sessions’s depiction of the recent terrorism-related events captures what is almost certainly the explanation for Congressional Democrats’ choice to turn away from their bills. In particular, the Obama administration (and by extension Democrats generally) has come under a great deal of fire for the attempted Christmas Day bombing as well as the handling of Umar Abdulmutallab subsequent to his arrest. With midterm elections approaching and Democrats already facing a bleak election season, they almost surely did not want to risk taking another action that would allow them to be branded as soft on terror. That said, it is noteworthy that Congress extended the three sections for only one year, whereas the House and Senate Judiciary Committee bills would have extended the sections (albeit with significant changes) through 2013. Thus, it could be that Congressional Democrats wish to table the issue until the political climate is more favorable and then implement the proposed changes at that later date.
Image Courtesy of CBS News