C-Span showed the House Judiciary Committee discussion of the sunsetting provisions of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act contains more than 150 separate sections in 10 major titles. About a tenth of the law sunsets this year unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. Experts provided testimony about how the latitude provided by the act has encouraged abuses, and how these abuses, in turn, have tarnished America's international image and weakened the struggle against terrorism. The Democratic Party along with the ACLU and other organizations are generally opposed to the renewal of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, while Republicans (the party of BIG government) are generally for it.
The Bush administration is pushing to not only reauthorize the act, but to expand it. The Patriot Act, according to Bush, has been important in bringing charges against more that 400 suspects. As so often happens, the facts have not been friendly to Bush's propaganda blitz. A study by Syracuse University indicates that the vast majority of these 400 suspects' cases were minor, non-terrorism offenses. (Indeed, these individuals posed such little threat to national security that most served no jail time.) So the act clearly hasn't led to more success in the so-called "War on Terror."
The greatest issue at hand, however, concerns the Patriot Act's constitutionality. Some expansions of the Patriot Act have already been ruled unconstitutional and other challenges are sure to follow. Under section 215 of the Patriot Act, judges who sit on a secret court must approve a request for records about people's health, wealth or the transactions of their daily life if the law enforcement agents say they require it for a foreign intelligence investigation. None of these requests has ever been denied. The order includes a permanent gag order, reducing accountability. The White House has refused the common sense requirement that there be specific facts connecting the records requested to a foreign agent. In other words, the motivation for a request could be virtually anything (e.g., purely political). To make matters worse, the White House is now pushing for administrative subpoenas. These would allow the FBI to issue and sign its own search orders - without prior judicial approval. If this becomes law, we will go from a weak system of judicial approval to none at all, virtually eliminating the notion of checks and balances.
Although the press has been relatively silent about the widespread dissent to the act, nearly 400 U.S. communities and 7 state legislatures have passed resolutions calling on Congress to bring the Patriot Act in line with the Constitution. Leading libertarian, liberal and nonpartisan organizations have found common ground in reforming the Patriot Act.
Some particular concerns about the Patriot Act include:
Section 213, which expands the government's ability to execute criminal search warrants (which need not involve terrorism) and seize property without notifying the target for weeks or months.
Section 215, which allows the FBI to seize a vast array of sensitive personal information and belongings – including medical, library and business records – using secret intelligence tools.
Sec. 215 Allows the FBI to use FISA court orders to seize any "tangible thing," including highly sensitive medical, library, business and travel records, from a wide variety of institutions under an extremely weak standard of judicial review.
Sec. 505 Authorizes the government to seize financial, Internet, credit and telephone records without prior judicial review and without articulable suspicion that the target is a terrorist or spy.
Sec. 507 Expands access to student records without individual suspicion.
Sec. 901 Permits the head of the the intelligence community to set "requirements and priorities" for domestic spying, which would put the CIA back in the business of monitoring Americans’ political activities.