Sunday, May 29, 2005

Protect your rights

The Times says there's been Little Progress in Bid to Extend Patriot Act:
After weeks of hearings by several Congressional committees on the sweeping antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, the intelligence committee is the first to consider formal legislation to renew the law before 16 of its major provisions expire at the end of the year. In addition to making many of the act's powers permanent, the proposal would expand the F.B.I.'s ability to subpoena records in terror cases and would give it sole discretion, without the approval of the Postal Service, to copy the outside of letters and mailings involving people with suspected links to intelligence investigations.

Our Senator Roberts chairs the intelligence committee, and is pushing this forward. Kansans should call him, email him and write him to let him know the following:

  • The Patriot Act's provisions should be discussed in public
  • No provisions which narrowed civil liberties should be expanded if the FBI can't show the necessity of the provision
  • Warrantless searches of records should be eliminated
That last one is really the biggie. One provision they want to add would permit the FBI to request various records from businesses, libraries, etc. without a warrant. As far as I'm concerned, there's no situation where a warrant is too large a burden. There are secret FISA warrants for counter-terrorism and espionage cases, and if Law and Order teaches us nothing else, it teaches that warrants are pretty easy to get. The FBI does not need the power to rifle through private financial records.

The ability to photocopy the outsides of envelopes is less of a problem. The only concern is that the FBI would be seizing mail without Post Office supervision. But the outsides of envelopes are not secret. Any measure the FBI takes to look inside the envelope is a clear violation of privacy, and I'd like to see specific legislative safeguards against warrantless examination of the contents of the mail.

I don't care about sneak and peek searches (where the search is not preceded with notice) provided notice is served eventually, and a warrant specially authorizes that action. Roving wiretaps cause a problem of specification, but I respect the need for action. Some sort of "Chinese wall" between the people searching for a subject and the investigator might be appropriate.

The problem being solved there is that people can change phones, use payphones, other people's cell phones, etc. and evade a wiretap on a specified number. The problem generated is that a tap is issued for thousands of phones in a region, or for numerous friends, acquaintances and businesses frequented by a subject. That looks very much like a license for government surveillance of any and all phone calls.

The Patriot Act was rushed through, and safeguards against these abuses may have fallen by the wayside. Before extending these and other controversial programs, Congress ought to hold hearings and seriously discuss safeguards which would not be onerous for legitimate investigations, but which would make abuses hard.

Public hearings would serve an additional purpose. People, even Bush supporters, have a negative view of the Act. Many of its provisions are poorly understood. They were enacted in secret, and their uses have been (of necessity) secret. It's easy to paint a dark picture. If there have been legitimate needs met by the Act, a public discussion of its successes will increase support.

If skeptics are given an opportunity to explain their concerns and offer solutions, a new, better Act may be possible. But secret hearings cannot improve the perception that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is creating a surveillance state.

If your senator is a member of that committee, you should contact them.