Yesterday, as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to recommend and send to the Senate floor a USA PATRIOT Act renewal bill lacking critical civil liberties reforms, EFF's reaction was much the same as Senator Feingold's, as he expressed in his post-vote blog post at Daily Kos.
Feingold, one of only three Democrats to vote against the bill and a sponsor of the PATRIOT reform bill the JUSTICE Act, was left scratching his head over how a Democratic super-majority with a Democratic Administration could so thoroughly fail at reforming the PATRIOT Act, a law long maligned by Democrats as an affront to civil liberties. He closed by posing a choice to his Democratic colleagues: "In the end...Democrats have to decide if they are going to stand up for the rights of the American people or allow the FBI to write our laws."
That sentiment echoed Feingold's words during the PATRIOT meeting itself: "We're not the Prosecutors' Committee, we're the Judiciary Committee!" A video excerpt of Feingold's stand for civil liberties is here, while video of the entire meeting is here; see also Emptywheel's live-blogging of the hearing and Julian Sanchez's frustrated live-tweeting. Sanchez, like Emptywheel, has been consistently churning out excellent material on the PATRIOT debate.
Funnily and disappointingly, as you listen to the video, you can hear Committee Chairman Leahy — typically a stalwart civil liberties advocate — letting out an exasperated "oh boy" as Feingold rallies against the bill. Leahy disappointingly voted for the amendments to weaken the bill's new privacy protections and ultimately for the bill itself, after being pressed for a final vote by Senator Feinstein, who can be heard in the video at 155:58 urging the Chairman to "do it, do it!"
In contrast to Leahy, Senator Specter — a former Chairman of the Committee who recently switched parties to join the Democrats — emerged as a key civil liberties advocate, joining with Senators Feingold and Durbin to vote for reform amendments and against the final bill.
A special disappointment at yesterday's hearing was freshman Senator Al Franken's vote for the bill, which amongst other things renewed PATRIOT's "roving" "John Doe" wiretap authority allowing the government to get a wiretapping order that doesn't name the wiretapping target or specify the phone lines and email accounts to be wiretapped. Just two weeks ago, Senator Franken was lecturing a Justice Department official on how the Fourth Amendment requires that search warrants specify with particularity the persons and places to be searched. He was right, then; he was wrong, yesterday.
Another sad but humorous moment of disappointment came from Senator Klobuchar, who opposed Senator Durbin's amendment to ensure that the FBI only use National Security Letters to obtain records related to a spy or terrorist. Thinking that she was reading the text of the bill that she was about to vote for, Klobuchar recited instead Senator Durbin's proposal to defend the reasonableness of the NSL standard in the bill. In other words, as the transcript reprinted here shows, Senator Klobuchar praised the NSL standard in Durbin's amendment immediately before she voted to help kill it.
However, the biggest disappointment of all yesterday was the Obama Administration itself. Of the seven amendments to water down the bill's civil liberties protections that were offered by the Committee Republicans, at least five of them were recommended by Obama's Justice Department. As one anonymous Democratic staffer told the New York Times, the amendments "were a verbatim transfer of the text of amendments the Obama administration had privately sent to Congress on Wednesday."
Additional news accounts of the PATRIOT debate and vote included reports from Wired's Threat Level blog, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, IDG News Service, CQPolitics and the National Journal.
As we said yesterday, this vote isn't the end of the fight: there is still a chance to improve the PATRIOT renewal bill — or stop it — on the Senate floor. There's also still a chance that the House Judiciary Committee and ultimately the full House will respond to yesterday's events by introducing and passing its own, more reform-minded, PATRIOT bill. When that happens, you can learn all about it here at Deeplinks; in the meantime, we need your help to keep the pressure on the Senate to support PATRIOT reforms like those in the JUSTICE Act. So, if you haven't already, please contact your Senator today!