Why the Senate’s Vote on the Patriot Act Is Actually Pretty Good News

Last night, By an overwhelming 86-to-12 margin, the Senate approved a temporary 90-day extension of three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act scheduled to sunset at the end of the month. The House just voted to move forward on a parallel extension bill, which will presumably pass easily. Because I’m seeing some civil libertarian folks online reacting with dismay to this development, I think it’s worth clarifying that this is relatively good news when you reflect on the outlook from just a couple of weeks ago.

The House has already approved a one-year extension that would plant the next reauthorization vote on the right eve of primary season in a Presidential election cycle, all but guaranteeing a round of empty demagoguery followed by another punt. As of last week, everyone expected the Senate to bring Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s three year reauthorization—which also extends the odious FISA Amendments Act of 2008—to the floor. The discussion on the Senate floor last night makes it clear that this didn’t happen because of pushback from legislators who were sick of kicking the can and wanted time to hold hearings on substantive reforms.

This is actually a better outcome than simply letting the three sunsetting powers lapse—which, realistically, was not going to happen anyway. First, because at least one of the expiring authorities, roving wiretaps, is a legitimate tool that ought to be available to intelligence investigators if it’s amended to eliminate the so-called “John Doe” loophole. Second, because while all three of these provisions have serious defects that raise legitimate concerns about the potential for abuse, they are collectively small beer compared with National Security Letters, which have already given rise to serious, widespread, and well documented abuses. One of the three sunsetting powers has never been used, and the other two are invoked a couple dozen times per year. All three involve court supervision. The FBI issues tens of thousands of National Security Letter requests each year, the majority targeting American citizens and legal residents, without any advance court approval. The vast majority of the thousands of Americans whose financial and telecommunications records are seized each year are almost certainly innocent of any wrongdoing, but their information is nevertheless retained indefinitely in government databases. With very few exceptions, these people will never learn that the government has been monitoring their financial transactions or communication patterns. Forcing a debate now on the expiring provisions opens a window for consideration of proposals to rein in NSLs—including a new sunset that would create pressure for continued scrutiny.

A new Pew poll released this week reports that Americans remain fairly evenly split on the question of whether the Patriot Act is “a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists” or “goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the change of administration, Democrats have become more supportive and Republicans somewhat more skeptical.) But this is actually a signally unhelpful way to frame debate about legislation encompassing hundreds of reforms to the byzantine statutory framework governing American intelligence investigations—more a toolbox than a “tool.” The question shouldn’t be whether you’re “for” or “against” it, but whether there are ways to narrow and focus particular authorities so that legitimate investigations can proceed without sweeping in so much information about innocent people. A three-month extension signals that Congress is finally, belatedly, ready to start having that conversation.