Members of Congress Working to Curtail Powers of Patriot Act
THERE IS A BIPARTISAN EFFORT AFOOT to rein in federal law enforcement’s ability to abuse rules for snooping that were loosened following passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.
Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (RAriz.) introduced the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 (H.R. 1800) in late March to curtail the subpoena power given to law enforcement as a result of National Security Letter (NSL) provisions in the Patriot Act. It immediately picked up 17 cosponsors.
NSLs involve subpoenas, which can be used to demand personal records from Internet companies, financial institutions, credit companies and libraries without prior court approval. Because they are issued in secrecy, do not require a court review and contain a gag order, targets never even know if they have been investigated. The American Civil Liberties Union says it worked with Congress to formulate legislation to reduce the FBI’s ability to snoop into Americans’ lives.
“To ensure that Americans’ privacy and free speech rights are protected, there must be clear oversight and strict guidelines tied to the use of NSLs,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Mr. Nadler and Mr. Flake should be applauded for taking this legislative step. Their bill will realign the current NSL authority with the Constitution. Congress must take this opportunity to rein in the power of the NSL.”
NSLs were supposed to be used only when obtaining information about suspected terrorists, but the Patriot Act expanded the statute to say that the subpoenas can now be used to obtain personal information about people who are identified as “relevant” to an investigation. As a result, the NSLs were wide open to abuse at the hands of federal agents.
Not surprisingly, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, which has been tasked with watching over its own agents, has admitted in a series of reports that there were “systemic misuse and abuse” of NSLs by FBI agents.
“It has become painfully clear that unchecked Patriot Act power inevitably leads to abuse, and National Security Letters are no exception,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel. “Innocent Americans have been swept into investigations and recipients have been barred from speaking about it publicly.”
(Issue # 16 & 17, April 20 & 27, 2009)