Senators Vote to Renew Patriot Act Spy Powers
(WIRED) A deeply divided Senate committee on Thursday forwarded legislation to the full Senate that reauthorizes three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act hastily adopted in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.
The measures greatly expanded the government’s ability to spy on Americans in the name of national security.
Thursday’s 11-8 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee came as lawmakers struggled to beat a looming deadline. The three provisions expire at year’s end, unless renewed.
During more than two hours of sometimes-heated debate in the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, some lawmakers accused one another of caving to intelligence officials who wanted to expand their powers, while other senators said the renewal was necessary to protect against looming — and classified — terror threats.
But when the hearing was over, the committee approved renewing measures that include allowing broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, from financial to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation. A proposal that would put limits on such requests was defeated.
Many senators said they’d been privately briefed by intelligence officials who were worried that adding constitutional protections for Americans could place them in harm’s way and jeopardize ongoing investigations. Lawmakers said they could not discuss the private briefing publicly because it was classified. “That’s the very nature of dealing with some of the laws dealing with the collection of highly classified material. It’s regrettable,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) who approved the renewals.
Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said he wished “the American public could have seen” the classified briefing. Leahy voted to forward the measure to the Senate.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) countered there was no evidence that adding limited privacy protections for Americans would hinder any investigation. Instead, he said, his colleagues were sanctioning “fishing expeditions.”
“I don’t buy it,” said the senator, who voted against sending the measure to the full Senate, where it meets an uncertain fate. The bill must also be approved by the House and signed by the president for the renewals to take effect.
No vote date for either body has been set.
Members also renewed the so-called “roving wiretap” provision, allowing the FBI to obtain wiretaps from the secret court, known as the FISA court, without identifying the target or what method of communication is to be tapped. Finally, the committee renewed the so-called “lone wolf” measure that allows FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist. The government has said it has never invoked that provision, but said it wanted to retain the authority to do so.
A Feingold measure (.pdf) to allow that provision to expire was defeated.
Feingold did not submit a much-discussed amendment to withdraw the immunity Congress granted to the nation’s telecommunications companies last year, one that shields the companies from lawsuits accusing them of funneling Americans’ electronic communications to the National Security Agency without warrants. Feingold announced the proposal two weeks ago and had said he would submit it to the committee for consideration during the Patriot Act renewal negotiations.
With limited exceptions, the committee-approved measure largely resembles existing law.
However, one change requires publication of audits, including how many times the government has used the Patriot Act’s provisions, including the number of targets. Much of the government’s public reporting on the topic has been voluntary, and very little is known about how often each power has been used and why.
Another change centered on library records. In order to obtain warrants for them from the FISA court, the new plan requires a tangential connection to a terror investigation or foreign power. The expiring version does not.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) worried the provision might “encourage terrorists they have a safe haven” in America’s public libraries. Session voted against the measure.
The most-intense debate centered on a controversial and often abused aspect of the Patriot Act that is not expiring at year’s end. Lawmakers went back and forth on whether to alter the standard by which National Security Letters are issued.
The letters allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records relevant to a government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 of them annually, and an internal watchdog has repeatedly found abuses of the National Security Letter powers.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) proposed a new standard (.pdf) that would authorize those records only if the investigation concerned terrorism or spy activities of an agent of a foreign power.
Durbin, whose proposal was defeated, said his plan would set “reasonable limits on these powers to protect basic constitutional rights we have sworn to uphold as members of the Senate.”
But other members said the FBI needs the carte blanche authority because it cannot know if the records relate to a terror investigation or foreign agent until they get the records.
Terrorists, Kyl said, “don’t carry cards in their wallets that say I am a respected member in the al-Qaida organization.”
Voting to send the package to the Senate floor were:
Benjamin Cardin, Maryland
Dianne Feinstein, California
Al Franken, Minnesota
Edward Kaufman, Delaware
Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota
Herb Kohl, Wisconsin
Patrick Leahy, Vermont
Charles Schumer, New York
Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island
John Cornyn, Texas
Jon Kyl, Arizona
Richard Durbin, Illinois
Russ Feingold, Wisconsin
Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania
Tom Coburn, Oklahoma
Lindsey Graham, South Carolina
Charles Grassley, Iowa
Orin Hatch, Utah
Jeff Sessions, Alabama