Sunday, October 25, 2009

Privacy and the Patriot Act

Editorial by

In the aftermath of 9/11, legislators cut legal corners to protect the nation. Congress should amend that now by revising certain expiring provisions of the law.

October 25, 2009

Along with the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the Bush administration's illegal eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, the USA Patriot Act came to symbolize the excesses of the post-9/11 war on terrorism. Now, as it weighs the extension of three expiring provisions, the Democratic-controlled Congress has an opportunity to restore key privacy protections that were forgotten in the aftermath of the attacks.


Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to renew the provisions and sent it to the Senate floor. Unfortunately, though the bill is an improvement over current law, it still falls short. The full Senate and House, where an extension bill was introduced last week, can do better.

The USA Patriot Act, supported by members of Congress from both parties and signed by President George W. Bush only 6 1/2 weeks after 9/11, is formally known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. The grandiose title, like the law's hasty enactment, reflected the national resolve to do something, anything, to prevent a repeat of 9/11.

Some parts of the original act were relatively uncontroversial, including those permitting the CIA and the FBI to share information more freely and allowing investigators to seek warrants for "roving wiretaps" targeted at individuals rather than telephone numbers. Others, however, unjustifiably eroded privacy rights. Particularly troubling were rules governing the acquisition of financial and other records that allowed investigators to conduct fishing expeditions -- as long as the documents were deemed "relevant" to a search for terrorists.

In December, three provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire: those dealing with roving wiretaps and the acquisition of records, and another (added in 2004) that allows surveillance of what are known as “lone wolf” terrorist suspects. All three extensions strike us as reasonable, though in one case further privacy protections are essential.

In the era of disposable cellphones, it makes sense for investigators, with a court order, to be able to listen in on a targeted suspect's calls regardless of where he is. And roving wiretaps long have been used in criminal investigations.

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