Four years ago, when U.S. Senator Russ Feingold stood alone in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration’s Patriot Act, he was portrayed as a political fringe dweller whose determination to defend basic liberties was out of touch with the realities of the post-9/11 era.
This year, as Feingold leads the fight to block a flawed proposal to reauthorize the Patriot Act, he does so as the voice of a national movement that includes conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents, and residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And he has enough Senate allies to speak seriously about launching a filibuster to block the measure.
What has changed since 2001?
For one thing, almost 400 communities across the United States and seven states — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont — have passed resolutions condemning the assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law contained in the Patriot Act and calling upon Congress to address those concerns before reauthorizing the measure that was approved with minimal debate in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Rarely in American history has a single law drawn such ideologically, politically and geographically diverse opposition.
The message was heard by the Senate which, during this year’s reauthorization debate, addressed many of the most serious civil liberties concerns. The bipartisan reauthorization measure, which added basic privacy protections that had been proposed by Feingold and others, was approved unanimously by the Senate.
Unfortunately, the U.S. House, which under the hard-line partisan leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and his lieutenants no longer operates as an independent legislative chamber but instead rubber stamps the requests of the Bush administration, failed to respond to the public outcry. Instead, it produced a reauthorization of the Patriot Act that was actually more draconian in some senses than the original legislation.
That set up what was supposed to be a clash between House and Senate conferees, who were required to reconcile the differing proposals.
But, rather than accept the Senate’s balanced bill, the conference committee opted to advance a version of the legislation that, like the House bill, extends most of the Patriot Act permanently while failing to address the flaws that have inspired so much opposition to the law. Of particular concern to civil libertarians is the fact that the conference committee’s proposal extends several of the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions by authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting allowing the government to seize the records of libraries, hospitals and businesses in “fishing expedition” searches.