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It's Not the Prosecutors' Committee, it's the Judiciary Committee

By       Message Russ Feingold     Permalink
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Reprinted from Daily Kos

Bad news today from the Judiciary Committee. At the beginning of the year, I had high hopes for the Patriot Act reauthorization process. We had just elected a President with a strong civil liberties record in the Senate. His Attorney General had supported some reforms during consideration of the last reauthorization bill in 2005. And Democrats controlled the Senate by such a large margin that our advantage on the Judiciary Committee ended up at 12-7 after Sen. Specter switched parties. Even as recently as 10 days ago, I hoped to be able to support a reauthorization bill introduced by Sen. Leahy that, while narrower than the JUSTICE Act that Senator Durbin and I have championed, did contain several important and necessary protections for the privacy of innocent Americans.

Events over the past two weeks dashed those hopes. Over the course of two business meetings, Sen. Leahy's bill was diluted to the point that I had to vote against it. It falls well short of what the Congress must do to correct the problems with the Patriot Act.

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.

I am also very troubled that administration officials have been taking positions behind closed doors that they are not taking publicly. I am pleased that we have not heard the type of public fear-mongering from this administration that was such a regular part of the discourse in the past. But if the administration wanted to further water down the already limited reforms in the bill that was on the table, they should have said so openly. Instead, at our only public hearing we were told that the Justice Department did not have positions on the crucial issues about to be discussed. Then, over the past week, in classified settings, the Department has weighed in against even some of the limited reforms that Sen. Leahy originally proposed. That led to the unusual spectacle today where many members of the committee based their decision to further weaken the bill on a classified briefing held yesterday, but could not fully discuss or debate their reasons. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I am privy to every bit of the classified information that was referred to today. And nothing presented in the classified briefings justifies the failure to address the real problems with the expiring Patriot Act provisions and other intrusive powers.

Furthermore, much of this debate is not about classified matters. Continuing to hide behind a veil of secrecy is not fair to Congress or to the American people.

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 appreciate Chairman Leahy's efforts to achieve a compromise. And I hope to work with him and other members of this committee to make further improvements as this bill goes forward. In the end, however, 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. For me, that's not a difficult choice.

 

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