As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Power Begets Power

Marcy Wheeler has the gory details of today's markup for the renewal of the Patriot Act. Basically, the Obama Administration and friendly Democrats in Congress - mainly DiFi and Pat Leahy - have used the Mohammed Zazi investigation to reauthorize provisions of the Patriot Act, some of which have never been used, some of which represent deep intrusions into our civil liberties.

So the Obama administration has its first allegedly big Terrorism case, and they can hardly contain themselves as they exploit it to justify a continuation of the very Patriot Act and FISA powers which Democrats (and, in the case of FISA, Obama himself) long claimed to oppose. Indeed, key Obama ally Dianne Feinstein has worked diligently in the Senate not just to block Patriot Act reforms, but to make the law even worse, and has repeatedly cited the Zazi case to justify that.

Absolutely none of the methods used in the Zazi investigation would have commenced without Zazi being tied directly to Al Qaeda. But Feinstein and the White House doesn't want to have this burden of proof. They want the ability to engage in fishing expeditions, to use roving wiretaps or "sneak and peek" searches or the use of business records without having to prove that the subject is suspected of terrorist activity. It's pretty clear that this is leading toward tracking the records of anyone who bought large quantities of hydrogen peroxide. So look out, women who dye their hair and like to stock up!

This has come in conjunction with major pronouncements by Administration officials about how very dangerous the Zazi case was and how it proves that law enforcement needs these tools. I rebutted that earlier - they need tools, but not OPEN-ENDED ones. It also makes a mockery of Administration boasts that they're not politicizing terror - the juxtaposition of these press events and the Patriot Act markup is pretty obvious.

But that's apparently what they're getting. Russ Feingold is upset. Only him, Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter (!) managed to vote against the final bill from the perspective of civil liberties.

Before I get into the specific provisions that concern me, I want to say how disappointed I was in the debate in the committee. Today particularly, I started to feel as if too many members of the committee from both parties are willing to accept uncritically whatever the executive branch says about even the most reasonable proposed changes in the law. Of course we should consider the perspective of the FBI and the Justice Department. Keeping Americans safe is everyone’s priority. But we also need to consider a full range of perspectives and come to our own conclusions about how best to protect the American people and preserve their freedoms. Protecting the rights of innocent people should be a part of that equation. It's not the Prosecutors’ Committee; it's the Judiciary Committee. And whether the executive branch powers are overbroad is something we have to decide. The only people we should be deferring to are the American people, as we try to protect them from terrorism without infringing on their freedoms [...]

Specifically, the bill reported out of the Committee today on an 11-8 vote (five Republicans and only three Democrats voted No) fell short in a few key areas. Perhaps the most important was the failure to include the reasonable 3-part standard for issuing a FISA business records order under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. This standard was in a bill unanimously reported by the Committee, under Republican control, in 2005, and it was in Sen. Leahy’s original bill this year. Last week, Senator Durbin offered an amendment to put the standard back in the bill. It would have ensured that these secret authorities can only be directed at individuals who have some connection to terrorism or espionage. The standard is broad and flexible, but it places some limits on this otherwise very sweeping authority. Unfortunately, Senator Durbin’s amendment failed. When it did, I hoped the Committee would instead consider at least adopting that same standard for issuing National Security Letters, which are not approved by any court, and which were seriously abused by the FBI. Today, that, too, was rejected.

The bill that passed out of committee did include some positive changes. I was pleased my amendment to reform invasive "sneak and peek" searches was included, as well as my amendment to require the executive branch to issue minimization procedures for NSLs. But these improvements did not make up for the bill’s shortcomings, and I was unable to support it on the final vote.

I only wish that Julian Sanchez could make another rebuttal video and we'd be done with this, but Fox News is hardly the problem. We've morphed pretty solidly into a surveillance state, a factor of being a state at permanent war.

I tend to side with Anonymous Liberal that at least Obama isn't asserting the divine right to break the law just by dint of being the unitary executive. That theory is on the dustbin of history, I hope. But if he's gathering the same powers, that's a distinction without a difference.

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