Jacob Sullum
Just before midnight last Thursday, a White House autopen signed legislation extending controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that were scheduled to expire the next day. President Obama authorized the use of a machine to produce a facsimile of his signature because he was traveling in Europe. But it was oddly appropriate, given the facsimile of congressional debate that preceded the bill's passage.

The extension was rushed through Congress based on a false sense of urgency, much like the original Patriot Act, which legislators did not even have time to read.

Back then, 45 days after 9/11, the urgency was based on a fear of follow-up attacks. Last week, the urgency supposedly was due to the long-anticipated expiration of three provisions: Section 215, which authorizes the government to demand "any tangible thing" it deems relevant to a terrorism investigation; Section 206, which lets the government obtain secret warrants for "roving wiretaps" without naming its target or specifying his location; and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which allows secretly authorized domestic surveillance of "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who are not connected to a foreign organization or government.

While members of Congress have had plenty of time to read the Patriot Act since 2001, many of them, perhaps most, still did not know what they were approving. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, Democrats who serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeatedly warned that the government conducts surveillance based on a "secret interpretation" of the Patriot Act, apparently involving Section 215, that cannot be discussed because it is classified.

Yet congressional leaders insisted the expiring powers -- including the "lone wolf" provision, which has never been used -- were absolutely essential to national security. Letting them lapse, even for a single day, claimed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would invite "dire consequences for our national security ... giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country undetected."

Never mind that Congress could have temporarily extended these provisions to provide more time for debate and consideration of amendments. The point of the wait-and-hurry-up strategy used by the Patriot Act's supporters is to assume away the very issue to be debated: whether the benefits of the privacy-invading powers granted by the law are worth the damage they do to civil liberties.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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