Back in February, Democratic leader Harry Reid promised fellow senator Rand Paul that—after years of kicking the can down the road—there would be at least a week reserved for full and open debate over three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act slated to expire this weekend, with an opportunity to propose reforms and offer amendments to any reauthorization bill. And since, as we know, politicians always keep their promises, we can look forward to a robust and enlightening discussion of how to modify the Patriot Act to better safeguard civil liberties without sacrificing our counterterror capabilities.
Ha! No, I’m joking, of course. Having already cut the legs out from under his own party’s reformers by making a deal with GOP leaders for a four-year extension without reform, Reid used some clever procedural maneuvering to circumvent Rand Paul’s pledged obstruction, slipping the Patriot extension into an unrelated small-business bill that’s privileged against filibusters. All this just to prevent any debate on amendments—the most prominent of which, the Leahy-Paul amendment, is frankly so mild that it ought to be uncontroversial. (Among other things, it modifies some portions of the statute already found constitutionally defective by the courts, and codifies some recordkeeping and data use guidelines the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily.) Apparently it’s too much to even allow these proposals to be debated and voted on.
One reason may be that a growing number of senators—most recently Ron Wyden and Mark Udall—have been raising concerns about a classified “sensitive collection program” that makes use of the sunsetting “business records provision,” also known as Section 215. They’ve joined Dick Durbin and (former Senator) Russ Feingold in hinting that there may be abuses linked to this program the public is unaware of, and that, moreover, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has interpreted this provision (in a classified ruling, of course) in a way that the general public would find surprising, and which goes beyond the law’s apparent intent. Intelligence operations, of course, must remain secret, but this means we are now governed by a body of secret law, potentially at odds with citizens’ understanding of the public statute—with the result that we cannot even know the true reason that common sense reforms, once endorsed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, cannot be adopted. This is—to put it very mildly—not how a democracy is supposed to function. Equally troubling, there’s strong circumstantial evidence (which I’ll outline in a separate post) that the program in question may involve large-scale cell phone location tracking and data mining—a conclusion shared by several other analysts who’ve followed the issue closely.
The one silver lining here is that, while press may not have the patience for a complicated policy debate involving byzantine intelligence law—especially now that many Democrats have decided that powers which raised the specter of tyranny under George W. Bush are unobjectionable under an Obama administration—they are always happy to cover a legislative boxing match. Perhaps, thanks to Sen. Paul’s intransigence, we’ll finally see a little sunlight shed on these potent and secret surveillance powers.