A Patriot Update

A few developments from a business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee held this morning. As I noted last month the new House Intelligence Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has already introduced another one-year straight renewal without modification. Since then, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would renew the expiring Patriot Act surveillance provisions through 2013, but with some very basic additional safeguards and oversight requirements—many of which the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily—including most crucially added constraints and a new sunset for expanded National Security Letter powers, which have already been held at least partly unconstitutional in their current form by federal courts, and which the government’s own watchdogs have already found to be subject to widespread abuse.

Enter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who played a key role in killing the same mild reforms last year. She’s already introduced legislation of her own, which would provide for an extension through the end of 2013, without any modifications, of not only the provisions set to expire this year, but also the highly troubling FISA Amendments Act, which in effect legalized the Bush administration’s illicit programmatic wiretapping with an added sliver of judicial oversight. Even this was not quite enough for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who announced he would introduce a bill making the expiring provisions permanent—effectively removing an important impetus to continuing oversight.

Feinstein, interestingly, purported to be theoretically supportive of Leahy’s reformist impulses, but argued that the “time crunch” created by the end-of-February sunset deadline makes this the wrong time to consider reforms. (In order to hurry things up, a Hill contact tells me, Feinstein’s bill will be fast-tracked to the floor under Senate Rule 14, circumventing the committee process.) This really makes very little sense. Leahy’s bill is essentially the same proposal reported out favorably by a bipartisan Judiciary Committee majority; the point of doing a one-year reauthorization in 2010 was supposedly to allow Congress to consider reform alternatives in the interim. Moreover, the Justice Department has already effectively agreed to accept the reforms that bill contains. If there’s nevertheless a need for further deliberation, Congress can do exactly what it did last time around and extend the sunset by a few weeks or months to allow for additional debate.

The time constraints here are wholly of Congress’ own making. And while the Leahy bill doesn’t go far enough by any means, there is just no good excuse to delay at least the beginning of needed reforms any further.