This month, the American military (the National Security Agency is a military organization) has been caught spying on tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Americans, without any particular suspicion that the people it is spying upon are involved in any criminal activity. They’re tracking metadata, yes, but more than that, the NSA has been authorizing its agents to listen in on telephone calls and read our emails without any search warrants or certification from a judge that any evidence exists to believe crimes are being committed or planned. The FBI is in on the unconstitutional spying too, releasing flying robots into the air above us to spy on American communities.
There are two laws that have significantly contributed to the crisis of unreasonable search and seizure by the Executive governments of George W. Bush and Barack Obama: The Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act. The extreme latitude with which the Executive Branch has applied these laws indicates that the best way to restore the confidence of the American people in their constitutional rights is to repeal both the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act. No one in either house of Congress, however, has yet introduced a law to do that.
What we have seen so far are a small number of bills that would provide a few restrictions on the Patriot Act or the FISA Amendments Act. The newest of these bills will be introduced today by Senator Patrick Leahy.
Yesterday, during the Senate Judiciary committee meeting in which FBI director Robert Mueller admitted that he has ordered spy drones to conduct surveillance within the United States, Senator Leahy announced his plans to reintroduce legislation to restrict the spying powers created by the Patriot Act. Leahy said, “I authored legislation in 2009 that would have improved and reformed the PATRIOT Act, while increasing public accountability and transparency. My bill was reported by this Committee on a bipartisan basis in 2009 and 2011, and would help protect the privacy rights of innocent Americans, and strengthen oversight by the courts and Congress. I intend to re-introduce that bill tomorrow, and hope that Senators from both parties will join me in this effort to improve the PATRIOT Act and further protect the civil liberties of everyday citizens. The American people deserve to know how broad investigative laws like the PATRIOT Act are being interpreted and used to conduct electronic surveillance, particularly when it involves the collection of data on innocent Americans. The American people also deserve to know whether these programs have proven sufficiently effective to justify their breadth. Right now, I remain skeptical.”
We can’t yet look at the Leahy legislation, but Senator Leahy’s track record on amending the Patriot Act is not a promising sign. The Patriot Act reform legislation that Leahy has introduced before has been regarded as weaker than the improvements that are needed to protect Americans’ constitutional rights. Every time Senator Leahy has reintroduced his legislation, he has made its reforms less effective, and yet, these compromises to the demands of the Homeland Security regime have not earned his legislation improved support from his congressional colleagues.
Over the years, in terms of both policy and politics, Leahy has been an ineffective champion for the effort to bring America’s surveillance machine back under control. A new, more simple tactic is needed: Total, permanent repeal of the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act.