(NEW YORK) MintPress — It has been more than a decade since President George W. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act (Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act), but the controversy surrounding it is far from over.
Indeed, on Thursday, two Senators, both Democrats, asked the Obama administration to disclose details about how it interprets a key provision of the act.
Passed a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act greatly expanded the scope of the government’s intelligence gathering ability in the U.S. while dramatically reducing daily freedoms of the American public. It also enlarged the Treasury Secretary’s authority to regulate financial transactions and broadened the discretion of law enforcement and other authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts.
In addition, the act widened the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, which increased the number of activities which can be monitored.
Last May, President Obama signed a four-year extension of three highly contentious provisions of the act, one of which, section 215, Access to Records, is the subject of the request sent by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado to Attorney General Eric Holder. They claim most Americans would be “stunned to learn the details” of what the government thinks it can do.4
The “libraries provision”
The Access to Records section, which is known as the “libraries provision,” even though it never mentions the word, allows investigators to obtain “any tangible thing (including books, records, papers, documents and other items)” as long as they are sought “in connection with” a terror investigation.
Critics maintain the law could be carried out by authorities to demand the reading records and history of members of the public. While the Justice Department (DOJ) has released evidence showing it has never been used against libraries or bookstores, civil rights advocates argue that there’s nothing stopping them from abusing it in the future.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims, for example, “The FBI could spy on a person because they don’t like the books he or she reads, or because they don’t like the websites he or she visits. They could spy on a person because he or she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy.”
Freedom of Information?
The ACLU, in fact, along with The New York Times, has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the DOJ requesting records about the government’s use of section 215 on the grounds that some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee had suggested the provision was being abused.
The Justice Department is seeking to have the suits dismissed, insisting that disclosing any information about its interpretation of the Patriot Act could tell America’s enemies how the government collects certain intelligence.
In their letter, Wyden and Udall wrote “It is a matter of public record that section 215, which is a public statute, has been the subject of secret legal interpretations.” They continue, “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”
“That is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”
This isn’t the first time the ACLU has tried to get information about the government’s use of section 215. In 2002, it filed a FOIA suit that resulted in the release of a few hundred documents. But now, it says, the FBI is using the provision more aggressively, and statements by the Obama administration raise the possibility that authorities are using it to support entire surveillance programs.
Wyden and Udall call the DOJ’s refusal to release the secret legal interpretations of the Patriot Act “contrary to core principles of American democracy.”
In their letter, they also complained that although the administration told Congress in 2009 that it would establish “a regular process for reviewing, redacting releasing significant opinions” of the court, since then “not a single redacted opinion has been released.”