When Senator Russ Feingold opposed the original version of the Patriot Act in 2001, the Wisconsin Democrat was alone in his defense of the Constitution.
This year, as Feingold led the frustrating fight to block reauthorization of the Patriot Act in a form that continues to threaten basic liberties, he left no doubt that he was entirely willing to stand alone once more. To colleagues who suggested that it was appropriate to trade a little liberty for the White House’s promise of more security in the war on terror, the senator declared: “Without freedom, we are not America. If we don’t preserve our liberties, we cannot win this war, no matter how many terrorists we capture or kill.”
When the key vote came Thursday, Feingold found he was not entirely alone. Along with Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, eight Democrats joined Feingold in voting “no” to reauthorization. The eight were:
Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka
New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman
West Virginia’s Robert Byrd
Iowa’s Tom Harkin
Vermont’s Patrick Leahy
Michigan’s Carl Levin
Washington’s Patty Murray
Oregon’s Ron Wyden.
While Feingold was not on his own this time, the vote was still lopsided — 89-10 to renew and extend expiring portions of the Patriot Act, with Hawaii Democrat Dan Inouye not voting. Despite earlier talk by many members of both parties about the need to stand firm in defense of basic Constitutional protections, all Republicans and the vast majority of Senate Democrats sided with the Bush White House in favor of legislation that still, among other things, permits an administration with a penchant for warrantless wireatpping to obtain secret orders allowing it to search private records held by libraries, medical clinics, businesses and financial institutions.
The Patriot Act reauthorization also allows government agencies to issue national-security letters, which are for all practical purposes subpoenas, without the approval of the courts.
The increasingly lamentable Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, chirped that, “Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president.”
Reid was, of course, wrong.
One senator who got it right was the dean of the chamber, West Virginia’s Byrd, who not only voted against resuthorization but also apologized for failing to join Feingold in 2001 to oppose the Patriot Act in its original form
“There is no doubt that constitutional freedoms will never be abolished in one fell swoop, for the American people cherish their freedoms, and would not tolerate such a loss if they could perceive it,” explained Byrd. “But the erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault but rather as a gradual, noxious creeping, cloaked in secrecy, and glossed over by reassurances of greater security.”