Democrats Back Down on Patriot Act

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., and his small band of fellow Patriot Act opponents were overwhelmingly outvoted when the Senate approved renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act by a vote of 89-10.

Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, said his months-long battle against renewal of the law was doomed after the White House and Congressional Republicans -- with the help of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. -- drafted a compromise measure promising new protections against abuses of the Act’s almost limitless surveillance power.

The new bipartisan measure would "require a more reasonable period for delayed-notice search warrants, provide enhanced judicial review of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] orders and national security letters, require an enhanced factual basis for a FISA order and create national security letter sunset provisions.”

Critics, such as Feingold and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, point out that the new “protections” are far from a victory for civil liberties, since most were already in earlier versions of the law, and suspected abuses took place, nonetheless.

One of the problems, they say, is that the Bush administration and Justice Department seek out sympathetic judges who will interpret the law in their favor when deciding whether to grant search warrants.

For example, a magistrate judge in Orlando, Fla., in 2003 denied a Justice request for a search warrant on a California website suspected of child pornography on the grounds that the Patriot Act was drafted expressly to be used to fight terrorism and that it clearly limited district court authority to issue out-of-jurisdiction search warrants only to cases involving terrorism investigations.

The government appealed to a federal judge who issues the warrant with no explanation. There is no record that child pornography charges were ever filed against the unnamed website or any of its visitors.

In a similar case last year, the same Florida judge denied a warrant that would have forced Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., to hand over usage logs (under the Patriot Act, users whose Internet usage logs are being searched do not have to be notified).

Again, a federal judge trumped his decision, saying that he believed Congress intended for the Act to be used to justify out-of-district search warrants for cases other than terrorism investigations, even though the law makes no specific mention of such widespread search powers.

Documents related to the above cases were sealed until earlier this year, leading to speculation regarding how many other warrants have been granted in a similar fashion without the knowledge of computer users or the public.

Kucinich expressed outrage this week following renewal of the Act, saying, “The Patriot Act threatens the civil liberties of every citizen of this nation, and is a full-frontal assault on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The Patriot Act permits the government to continue to conduct criminal investigations without probable cause, to conduct secret searches, to gain wide powers of phone and Internet surveillance and access highly personal … records with minimal judicial oversight.”