Good News and Bad on PATRIOT Reform

Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in which he agreed to implement an array of policies designed to check abuse of USA PATRIOT Act powers. These include more thorough record keeping and more disclosures to Congress, prompt notification of telecommunications companies when gag orders have expired, and updated retention and dissemination procedures to govern the vast quantities of information obtained using National Security Letters.

In itself, this is all to the good. But civil libertarians should pause before popping the champagne corks. Last year, the fight over the reauthorization of several expiring PATRIOT provisions opened the door to the comprehensive reform that sweeping legislation sorely needs to better balance the legitimate needs of intelligence and law enforcement against the privacy and freedom of Americans. Despite serious abuses of PATRIOT powers uncovered by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, no such major changes were made. Instead, Congress opted for a shorter-term renewal that will require another reauthorization this February—in theory allowing for the question of broader reform to be revisited in the coming months.

Many of the milder reforms proposed during the last reauthorization debate now appear to have been voluntarily adopted by Holder. Unfortunately, this may make it politically easier for legislators to push ahead with a straight reauthorization that avoids locking in those reforms via binding statutory language—and entirely bypasses the vital discussion we should be having about a more comprehensive overhaul. If that happens, it will serve to confirm the thesis of Chris Mooney’s 2004 piece in Legal Affairs, which persuasively argued that “sunset” provisions, far from serving as an effective check on expansion of government power, often make radical “temporary” measures more politically palatable, only to create a kind of policy inertia that makes it highly unlikely those measures will ever be allowed to expire.

With the loss of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who whatever his other faults has been the Senate’s most vocal opponent of our metastasizing surveillance state, the prospects for placing more than cosmetic limits on the sweeping powers granted since 2001 appear to have dimmed. If there’s any cause for optimism, it’s that the recent fuss over intrusive TSA screening procedures appear to have reminded some conservatives that they used to believe in limits on government power even when that power was deployed in the name of fighting terrorism.