Despite all the rhetoric from President Bush about his great belief in “freedom,” his Administration is doing more than any in recent history to undermine our basic constitutional rights. The recent revelation that the President has overseen a secret domestic spying program is only the latest example of the Administration’s willingness to disregard our core democratic principles. It is exactly the kind of abuse that we must rein in by reforming the USA Patriot Act.
Written at a time when our nation was reeling from the horrific attacks of September 11, the Patriot Act received little scrutiny and even less opposition when it initially passed. Only one senator and sixty-six House members (myself included) voted against it. But four years later a broad spectrum of Americans has rightly concluded that many provisions of this law endanger the core freedoms that define us as Americans.
The desire for change was demonstrated this past June when the House approved my amendment to revise one of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act–Section 215, often called the library provision. The amendment prevented the government from gaining access to Americans’ reading records in libraries and bookstores without a traditional search warrant. Put forward as part of a spending bill, the amendment was intended to prevent these searches for one year. More important, the vote demonstrated the need for real reform during the act’s reauthorization, which was scheduled to come up just a few weeks later.
Faced with overwhelming support for reform, the Republican leadership used every procedural tool at their disposal to prevent the House from voting on amendments that reformed the act–including the same Section 215 amendment that had recently passed. We were left with a reauthorization bill that made very few meaningful changes. Despite this abuse of power, the Republican leadership couldn’t silence the coalition of progressives and conservatives in Congress committed to protecting civil liberties. In December these members refused to pass the Republican leadership’s bill in the Senate.
When Congress reconvenes, our coalition will fight for a new reauthorization bill that includes essential reforms. Among them is a revision to Section 215 that would require the FBI to show evidence linking a citizen to terrorism before obtaining his or her reading records. We will also push to have this standard applied to national security letters, another Patriot Act mechanism for obtaining citizens’ library, bookstore, medical and business records.
Regardless of the outcome in Congress, the fight to restore Americans’ core freedoms will continue across the country. In Connecticut librarians have gone to court to challenge a gag order preventing them from discussing the government’s use of national security letters to dig up the library records of their patrons. The Electronic Privacy Information Center recently won a lawsuit that forced the FBI to disclose records of clandestine domestic surveillance.
It is critical that these challenges to the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act continue. It’s up to us to make sure that the freedoms on which our nation was founded are not subject to the whim of an Administration whose term has been defined by repeated abuses of power.