Americans would be horrified if they knew the full extent of how the Justice Department uses the Patriot Act for surveillance and information gathering, two senators charged yesterday.
Comments from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-CO) that the government is abusing its powers underscored the fiery debate over encroachment on civil liberties touched off by this week's ultimately successful push to renew key provisions of the Patriot Act (President Obama signed the renewal in Europe with an autopen machine). Both senators sit on the Intelligence Committee and are privy to classified information.
When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry, Wyden said in a prepared statement. He went on to point out public outrage instances when overreaching government programs were exposed, including the CIA's mid-century monitoring of anti-war activists and the Iran Contra affair.
Wyden said his concerns are not confined to the text of the law itself but also apply to how it is carried out. He noted that actions taken under the Patriot Act are often cloaked in secrecy.
The fact is that anyone can read the plain text of the Patriot Act, and yet many members of Congress have no idea how the law is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch, because that interpretation is classified, Wyden said.
Udall made a similar argument on the Senate floor, noting that what most people, including many members of Congress, believe the Patriot Act allows the government to do, and what government officials privately believe the Patriot Act allows them to do, are two different things. Udall singled out three measures whose extension Congress was debating as ripe for abuse: one that expands the ability to obtain wiretaps, one that empowers agents to pursue lone wolf operatives not associated with a specific terrorist network, and one that enables access to any business records deemed relevant to an investigation.
While all three are controversial, critics say the business records provision is the most insidious because of the sweeping powers they say it gives to gather large volumes of data. In an interview with Wired's Danger Room blog, Wyden said that provision is the one he is extremely interested in reforming. He declined to elaborate further.
While most senators supported renewing the provisions, the move still generated heated debate on the Senate floor. Democrats like Wyden and Udall found an ally in a frequent antagonist, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who sought to force a debate on amendments limiting the legislation's scope.
The White House applied steady pressure in the days leading up to Congress passing the extensions, with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sending Congress a letter urging them to act swiftly. While Obama campaigned on reversing what he characterized as Bush administration civil rights abuses committed in the name of national security, Obama has since embraced measures such as the Patriot Act and invoking the state secrets privilege to bar certain activities from coming to light in court.