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Jeff Merkley Echoes House Warning about Blank Check Surveillance in the Patriot Act

In a speech on the floor of the Senate yesterday, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon spoke in support of amendments to reform the Patriot Act, just before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made a sudden move to forbid all such amendments and force the reauthorization of the Patriot Act to move forward.

In his speech, Merkley echoed a warning earlier this month from Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia that letting the government engage in search, seizure and surveillance under circumstances deemed merely “relevant” to an “investigation” is the equivalent of writing a blank check for government spying on people whenever and however it desires. Merkley declared:

I rise to address the 4-year extension of the PATRIOT Act and to oppose that extension if the bill is not modified.

I want to take us back to the principles on which our Nation was founded and, indeed, before our Declaration of Independence and before our Constitution when there was a deep tradition of the right of privacy. Let’s take William Pitt’s declaration in 1763. He said:

The poorest may, in his cottage, bid his defiance to all the forces of the Crown ….. the storm may enter; the rain may enter. ….. But the King of England may not enter.

It is the philosophy embedded in William Pitt’s declaration of the sanctity of a man’s home that underwrote the principle of the fourth amendment. That reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The fourth amendment is powerful protection of personal privacy from the overreach of government. How does that compare in contrast to the PATRIOT Act that is before us?

Let me tell you the standard that is in the PATRIOT Act for the government to seize your papers, to search your papers, and that standard is simply “relevant” to an “investigation.” Relevant to an investigation? That is the legal standard set out in the PATRIOT Act. That is a standard that was written to be as broad and low as possible. What does it mean to be “relevant” to an investigation? It certainly isn’t something as strong as probable cause, which is in the fourth amendment. It certainly isn’t describing the place to be searched, the persons and things to be seized. Indeed, the word “relevant” doesn’t have a foundation of legal tradition that provides any boundaries at all.

Let’s take the term “investigation.” “Investigation” is in the eye of the beholder. I want to look into something, so that is an investigation. What happens to these words in the PATRIOT Act, in the section of the PATRIOT Act that addresses the sweeping powers to investigate Americans down to the books they check out, their medical records, and their private communications? Quite simply, there is a process in theory in which a court, known as the FISA Court, makes a determination, but they make the determination upon this standard–that this standard is “relevant to an investigation.”

Now, the interpretation of that clause is done in secret. I would defy you to show me a circumstance where a secret interpretation of a very minimal standard is tightened in that secret process. But we don’t know because we are not being told.

Do you think the blank check exercise of government power to spy on people, collect their communications and rifle through their possessions should be authorized for years into the future without significant public hearings, without reforms, without amendments?

Well, that’s about to happen. Call your Senators about it. Tell them to vote NO on this ramrodded bill. If they vote YES, remember on Election Day.

6 comments to Jeff Merkley Echoes House Warning about Blank Check Surveillance in the Patriot Act

    • At least for now, Rand Paul’s tactics are not stopping, but rather have been stopped. Also should be be noted that Rand Paul is not the only Senator out there acting to oppose the Patriot Act — as this post makes clear.

  • qs

    There’s a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says

    You may think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) says it’s worse than you’ve heard.
    But Wyden says that what Congress will renew is a mere fig leaf for a far broader legal interpretation of the Patriot Act that the government keeps to itself — entirely in secret. Worse, there are hints that the government uses this secret interpretation to gather what one Patriot-watcher calls a “dragnet” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.
    “We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden tells Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/05/secret-patriot-act

    • I encourage everyone to read the excellent Wired article qs references — when the administration’s secret interpretation of its powers under the Patriot Act comes out it I think it will be pretty clear what all this surveillance is about: trolling through innocent people’s communications and possessions to dredge up people who, based on their habits and behaviors, fit a pre-crime profile of what a terrorist would do and are to be subjected to even greater monitoring and government intrusion.

      Sorry, I actually got that wrong. I should say that the government will proclaim it’s all about terrorism. But the tactics will be used under the best administrations to ferret out future criminals of all sorts before they commit their acts. Under the worst administrations, the tactics will be used to ferret out people who are dangerous for their dissent and to develop useful intelligence to be used against them if they get too far. It’s COINTELPRO all over again, fast forwarded from the age of the Xerox machine to the age of the petabyte internet.

  • qs

    Senator Wyden: There are classified provisions of the Patriot Act

  • qs

    Senator Wyden: There are classified provisions of the Patriot Act,

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