Thursday, September 24, 2009

What A Coincidence!

How unusual: just as Congress is prepared to discuss the extension of three provisions of the Patriot Act which expire at the end of the year and to consider some new bills which would tighten the requirements for obtaining national security letters and other tools for intrusions into the civil liberties of citizens, the Justice Department announced a breakthrough in an investigation into a terrorist plot involving bombs and men with Arab sounding names. Just a coincidence, I guess, an unhappy happenstance.

The Washington Post only indirectly alluded to that coincidence in this article, concentrating instead on the rather muted Justice Department response to the various proposals floating around Congress:

At hearings in the House and Senate, the officials repeatedly said they had no position yet on legislation that Democrats have introduced that would tighten standards and oversight of surveillance tools authorized under laws including the USA Patriot Act.

"We are trying to figure out whether the provisions that are suggested there will work for us as is, or perhaps with modifications," David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on whether to renew a trio of Patriot Act powers set to expire Dec. 31.

Those provisions allow investigators to use "roving wiretaps" to monitor suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers; obtain from third parties the business records of national security targets; and track "lone wolf" suspects who may not belong to a terrorist group but may be planning attacks.

Assistant Attorney General Kris was playing it close to the vest, primarily because he can as the developing story on the latest bomb plot takes up increasing column inches on the front pages of national newspapers. With that kind of backdrop, he knows that he can appear above the fray. The Justice Department has done its job in keeping the country safe.

But it's not just those provisions of the odious Patriot Act which are about to expire that are under discussion in Congress. The national security letters have also grabbed some attention because they completely circumvent the judicial oversight necessary to protect our civil liberties.

Among the most problematic provisions targeted by Democrats is one not due to expire. But Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine testified Wednesday that the national security letter -- a tool that lets FBI agents obtain phone, bank and other personal records from third parties without judicial approval -- has been subject to "serious misuse."

The Patriot Act, passed in late 2001, broadened the FBI's authority to use national security letters by lowering the standard for issuing them and by expanding the number of FBI officials who could sign them. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and two colleagues introduced a bill this week that would place a four-year expiration date on the letters' authority and tighten the standard for issuing them.

Under legislation introduced last week by Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the FBI would also have to show that people whose records are sought have some connection to terrorism or espionage. Both bills would also, to varying degrees, strengthen requirements for the use of other surveillance tools.

In light of the Inspector General's testimony regarding the "serious misuse" of the national security letter system, it will be interesting to see how long the Assistant Attorney General for National Security remains coolly above the fray with respect to the proposed bills. It will also be interesting to see how President Obama, who deplored the Bush administration's disdain for civil liberty and the US Constitution during his campaign, will react to the proposed cutting back on the powers granted the government under the Patriot Act.

Finally, it will be most interesting to see how the "tenthers" and "teabaggers" will react to a curtailing of the executive branch's over-reaching when it comes to our right to privacy and to be secure in our homes. After all, that's what they seem to be most concerned about.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous larry, dfh said...

Thanks for this Diane. As naturally conpiratorial as I tend to be, this one slipped by. Thanks for keeping us on our toes.

8:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home