I have been working to fix problems with the USA PATRIOT Act even before the ink dried on President George W. Bush’s signature when he signed the bill on October 26, 2001. On one occasion in May 2011, I appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. In my testimony, I addressed how and when the USA PATRIOT Act enabled the federal government to engage in all manner of surreptitious electronic snooping on American citizens, in a manner neither intended nor authorized by the Congress when it drafted, debated and passed the legislation in the immediate aftermath of the 911 attacks.
Even before revelations last year by reporter Glen Greenwald revealed the extent of the NSA’s domestic spying, we knew the federal government was abusing a particular provision of the USA PATRIOT Act – specifically, Section 215 -- to surreptitiously collect massive amounts of data, including private phone calls. This particular program was based on an absurdly expansive interpretation of the language of Section 215, the so-called “business records” section of the Act, and justified on the theory that the massive amounts of private data collected might possibly one day in the indefinite future be determined to aid in identifying a terrorist.
Repeatedly, however, when such abuses were brought to the attention of congressional committees tasked with oversight responsibility over the executive branch, all but a handful of members of both the House and the Senate declined to sound the alarm, much less take action to correct such abuses by pressing for limiting amendments to the USA PATRIOT Act.
This head-in-the-sand mentality continues to this day. Just last week, Republican and Democratic House members were presented a clear opportunity to significantly curtail the Obama Administration’s bulk data collection, through a bill titled the “USA Freedom Act.” However, just as occurred previously, congressional leaders retreated at the last minute, passing instead a watered-down version that privacy hawks like Rep. Justin Amash could not support. Predictably, the White House quickly offered its endorsement of the heavily amended bill, noting in typical Administration gobbledygook, that the bill provided federal authorities the power necessary to protect America while still protecting personal freedoms – a standard, post-911 euphemism for government to do whatever it wishes, so long as it couches its actions in terms of “fighting terrorism” and “protecting national security.”
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