While there are a slew of USA PATRIOT Act reform bills buzzing about Capitol Hill, the focus in Congress is now on two chief contenders, reported out by the House and Senate judiciary committees respectively. The very very short version is that the Senate version renews expiring PATRIOT powers with very few modifications, and that the House version includes an array of moderately more robust civil liberties safeguards. As Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued cogently, these differences are really far less important than the need to reform the FISA Amendments Act, which vastly expanded the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency, in effect permitting the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping to proceed with some cosmetic trappings of oversight. Still, the House bill does go some ways toward restoring the quaint notion that government should pry in to the private records of its citizens only when some evidence exists to provide grounds for individualized suspicion.
The Obama administration, alas, has decided to back the Senate’s bill, though the Justice Department also expressed “concerns” about the handful of actually-substantive checks on government spying power, and made clear that it intends to continue “working with the Committee” to gut those before the bill reaches the floor. For those with a taste for the gory details, Wired points to CDT’s handy dandy cheat sheet comparing the main provisions of the two bills.