Responding to growing public and congressional criticism of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Department of Justice this week released a new report to Congress singing its praises.
As other commentators have already pointed out, the DoJ report, entitled "Report from the Field: The USA PATRIOT Act at Work," contains precious little new or meaningful information. Instead, it functions primarily as a public relations vehicle, parroting the DoJ's well-worn party line about the benefits of the Act while failing to address specific and legitimate concerns about how PATRIOT is being used or whether the new investigative powers it grants are actually necessary for fighting terrorism.
For example, the report contains absolutely no discussion of the most controversial PATRIOT provisions, including sections 215 and 505, which gave the DoJ broad new authority to demand your private records with little or no judicial oversight, and section 213, which authorized delayed notice, or "sneak and peek," searches.
At the same time, the DoJ glosses over any problems with the PATRIOT sections that it deigns to cite. For example, the report speaks glowingly of PATRIOT's changes to the criminal definition of providing "material support" to terrorists, yet fails to mention that one federal court has already found this new definition unconstitutional.
PATRIOT was originally sold to Congress and the public as an anti-terrorism measure, but nearly a third of the cases the DoJ cites do not involve terrorism at all. Instead, provisions that strip us of our most fundamental rights as U.S. citizens are being used to investigate garden-variety crimes like credit-card fraud.
Any incursion on our civil liberties must be clearly justified, but this report fails to show that pre-PATRIOT surveillance powers were inadequate. The only real benefit the DoJ cites, and repeats in example after example, is investigative speed - with fewer judicial safeguards to comply with, investigators were able to do their work faster. But speed alone does not justify removing these critical safeguards - if it were, we would dispense altogether with the constitutional requirement that investigators get search warrants to come into our homes, or wiretap orders to listen to our phone conversations.
"The Department of Justice report on PATRIOT is a prime example of 'style over substance,' offering little concrete information about the Act's uses or potential abuses," says Kevin Bankston, EFF attorney and Bruce J. Ennis/Equal Justice Works fellow. "The American people should not blindly accept the DoJ's PATRIOT propaganda, but, rather, should demand that Congress undertake a comprehensive review of PATRIOT's implementation."
To ask Congress to review PATRIOT, visit EFF's Action Center; for more information about the Act, see EFF's backgrounder.