A valiant coalition of Americans, ranging from Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold to former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, that has questioned the sweeping “anti-terror” law misnamed the USA Patriot Act has had a modest success. It is important these Americans spend only a short time licking their wounds before resuming an aggressive defense of traditional American liberties.
Partially because of the efforts of this coalition of liberals, moderates, conservatives and libertarians working together (and largely because of revelations in December about unwarranted National Security agency spying on Americans) renewal of the act, without which it would have been “sunsetted” out of existence, was delayed several times. The version that passed the Senate last Thursday had at least a few modest protections of civil liberties.
The compromise measure gives recipients of secret subpoenas the right to challenge an accompanying order not to discuss the case publicly — although not until after a year has passed. It also prevents the FBI from demanding the names of lawyers consulted by people who get secret government demands for information, and would prevent most libraries from being subject to such requests.
But forcing someone to wait a year before talking about a government demand for information is no real protection at all. And investigators can still get at the records of people who use libraries to gain access to the Internet by going directly to Internet service providers.
The most important shortcoming of the bill, as former Rep. Barr put it, is “its failure to include a requirement that the government must first have, and provide to a court, information that the records are about a suspected foreign terrorist or someone conspiring with a terrorist before the government can access a citizen’s private information.” The absence of this safeguard is a virtual invitation for government agents to go on data-mining fishing expeditions for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with terrorism.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., although he voted for the compromise, says he is drafting in further revisions. Rep. Barr’s proposal would be a good place to start.