No compromise on the Patriot Act

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Remember, back in April, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he was open to changing the Patriot Act? Well, a change has been proposed, but it’s to expand the already sweeping power afforded the FBI. The Justice Department has been in negotiations with the Senate Intelligence Committee to push through a bill to expand the FBI’s search and surveillance powers via something called “administrative subpoenas.” Phillip Carter translates for us lay-folk: “These are little more than formal letters from the FBI, which carry the weight of the law, and allow the FBI to get documents without a judge approving a search warrant or judicial subpoena. They are, in effect, a short-circuit of the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirements for searches and seizures”

Essentially, the FBI is pushing to be able to authorize themselves, without a judge’s sign-off, to subpoena medical records, tax records, and any other material that it deemed relevant to its intelligence investigation. It would therefore remove safeguards currently in place. According to one Democratic Congressional official, “This all comes down to not wanting an FBI agent to have to go to a prosecutor and then the court to get formal approval.”

It gets worse: the current law “would be amended to specify that material must be ‘relevant’ to a foreign intelligence investigation.” Don’t let the seemingly positive word “relevant” fool you. As Carter writes,

Showing that something is relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation is actually a significantly lower standard that what currently exists in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which states that…warrants shall only be issued where ‘a significant purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information’ This…change…will allow DoJ to use FISA powers in any case that is merely relevant to a foreign intelligence matter, broadly defined. In theory, DoJ can define a wide band of actors as national security threats—terrorist, terrorist sympathizers, material supporters, narco-traffickers…”

Or the ACLU. The ACLU recently issued a statement saying that, “the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups.” The statement was based on information from FOIA documents that the ACLU has obtained. But it doesn’t look like the ACLU, or, indeed, anyone outside the Senate Intelligence Committee will have any say in the matter. The Committee is scheduled to have a closed meeting on Thursday “to review classified information about how the Patriot Act has been used.”

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