Regular reader and Pennsylvania Green Party activist Ross Levin asked me to share a letter he received from his member of Congress, Representative Allyson Schwartz. Ross had asked Rep. Schwartz to explain why she had repeatedly supported reauthorization of the Patriot Act without any reforms (voting YES for Patriot Act powers most recently in February of 2011, and in February of 2010 before that).
Included below is the entire text of Representative Schwartz’s letter, with only Ross Levin’s address taken out:
March 7, 2011
Mr. Levin Levin
Dear Mr. Levin,
As I work to address the needs of American families and businesses at home and across the country, it is important that I hear your views and concerns. I appreciate you taking the time to contact my office and I wanted to share with you my views on the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, more commonly known as the PATRIOT Act.
The PATRIOT Act was first enacted in 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. It gave federal law enforcement agencies important new tools to combat terrorism, updating a number of older laws including: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 and Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Congress instituted expiration dates for some of the PATRIOT Act’s more controversial provisions so that Congress must reassess the need for these expanded powers every few years. One of the original provisions, authorized for four years, made it easier for the FBI to obtain sensitive personal records of American citizens, such as their library, medical and business records.
In 2006, President Bush signed into law a four-year extension of the PATRIOT Act, set to expire on December 31, 2009. As that expiration approached, Congress included an extension through February 28, 2010 in the Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, which was signed by President Obama on December 19, 2009. On February 27, 2010, the PATRIOT Act was again extended when the President signed a year-long re-authorization, set to expire on February 28, 2011. On February 17, 2011 I supported, and Congress passed, the FISA Extension Act, which extends three PATRIOT Act provisions until May 27, 2011.
Tactic one in a difficult letter to a constituent: fill it in with history rather than with answers to the constituent’s question. But Schwartz’s filler history is off. Although she describes the USA Patriot Act as comprising “new tools to combat terrorism,” she fails to mention that only 0.4% of the Patriot Act’s secret sneak-and-peek searches in fiscal year 2008 were used to combat terrorism. In fiscal year 2009 (the last year for which we have information), only 0.5% of of Patriot Act sneak-and-peeks were used in terrorism cases. This isn’t a tool against terror — it’s a tool of an eagerly probing police state.
Neither does Allyson Schwartz mention the rampant and repeated cases in which government agents took their Patriot Act surveillance authority and ran with it across the line of legality — a thousand abuses of the Patriot Act every year, most of those unreported to higher authorities.
Rep. Schwartz continues:
I strongly believe that we must aggressively intercept terrorists’ communications, track their whereabouts, disrupt their plans and eliminate their threat. This surveillance must contain a system of checks and balances to prevent any abuse of these powers. By law, all searches and surveillances carried out under the PATRIOT Act must first be reviewed by a panel of federal judges who can approve or deny the request of law enforcement agencies.
Notice the return of the “terrorists” again, with no mention that Patriot Act authorities are used most of the time for reasons having nothing to do with terrorism. Did you know that in 2009, Senator Dick Durbin tried to reform the Patriot Act by simply requiring government agents to affirm that surveillance powers were being used to combat terrorism or agents of a foreign power? Do you know what happened? The Senate voted Dick Durbin’s amendment down — because they knew that the Patriot Act was being widely used for reasons having nothing to do with terrorism.
And heck, that’s just the first sentence of Schwartz’s paragraph. In sentence 2, Schwartz claims the need for “checks and balances” against abuses of Patriot Act powers… and yet she has voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act surveillance program without any reforms for two years running. “Checks and balances” should be a familiar phrase: it’s a concept embedded within the structure of the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the check on government power is the 4th Amendment, which prohibits government searches and seizures without reasons. Agents of the executive branch of government must affirm to a judge (balancing branches of government against one another) that there is probable cause to believe the target of a search or seizure is breaking the law. The Patriot Act either requires a weaker affirmation to a judge merely that a person is “relevant” to an ongoing investigation, or requires no advance approval by a judge at all. When Allyson Schwartz claims in sentence three that “all searches and surveillances carried out under the PATRIOT Act must first be reviewed by a panel of federal judges,” she either doesn’t know what she’s talking about or she doesn’t care about telling her constituents the truth. National Security Letters to gather information on the doings of innocent Americans require no advance review or approval by a judge at all.
Having pressed out a mere paragraph of inaccurate responses to Ross Levin’s query, Allyson Schwartz fills out her one-page letter with more historical pulp and a boilerplate invitation for her constituents to ask more questions that she won’t answer:
The provisions included in the most recent re-authorization include one that allows government access to tangible items, including personal records, during the course of surveillance; a second provision that authorizes the use of roving wiretaps; and a third provision known as the “lone wolf” provision, which allows for the surveillance of persons not identified with a known terrorist group but suspected of terrorist activity. These provisions were signed into law by President Obama on February 25, 2011.
Congress will continue to revisit and update the PATRIOT Act so that we can adequately protect both the security of our nation and the civil liberties of American citizens. Again, thank you for contacting me concerning your interest on this important issue. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me in the future for more information or if I can help in any way. If you would like to stay informed of my work, or to sign up for my e-newsletter, please visit my web site at www.house.gov/Schwartz.
Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz
Have you had enough of the War on Terror being used as an excuse to ignore the Constitution and open up our lives to government’s prying eyes? Have you had enough of your representatives in Congress responding to your valid concerns with pats on the head, dissembling, babbling and downright falsehoods?
Don’t just sit there and take it. If you’re going to be spied on by your government, you ought to at least earn it by exercising your First Amendment rights to Assembly, Free Speech and Petitioning for the Redress of Grievances. If you are one of the millions of Americans who live within an easy shot of Washington, DC, head to the West Side of the Capitol Building at Noon this Saturday, March 12 for a protest against the provisions of the Patriot Act. Trust me: doing something will feel much, much better than continuing to do nothing.