Senate committee makes progress on USA PATRIOT Act

We have good Patriot Act news to report from the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.  On a 10-7 vote the committee approved a bill, the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 (S. 193), to reauthorize three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and add important new safeguards for library and bookseller records. 

First, some background:  Congress failed to meet a December 2009 deadline to reauthorize the three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act — Section 215 business records, roving intelligence wiretaps, and the so-called “lone wolf” provision — and has been passing short-term extensions ever since.  The current extension expires on May 27, 2011.  Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced S. 193 earlier this year, and it includes several relatively modest changes to controversial surveillance authorities. 

But the bill also contains some important new protections.  It imposes a heightened degree of protection for library patron and circulation records in intelligence investigations under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (sometimes called the “library records” provision).  Under current law, to obtain business records the government need only demonstrate mere relevance to an investigation — a very low standard that is far too easy to satisfy and could lead to government fishing expeditions.  As introduced, the bill required that to obtain library records, the government must do more; it must prove a connection to a terrorist or spy.  Better yet, during the committee’s markup of the bill, by an 11-7 vote it adopted an amendment to extend this special protection to bookseller records as well.  While all business records should be subject to this higher standard, protecting library and bookseller records is an excellent start.

In addition, the bill subjects the controversial National Security Letter (NSL) statutes to a sunset for the first time.  The NSL statutes were dramatically expanded by the Patriot Act, and have come under fire after the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General uncovered rampant misuse of NSLs by the FBI.  Imposing a sunset would give Congress more leverage to conduct oversight and an opportunity to impose further reforms in a few years.

Finally, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) partnered with freshman Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) on a successful amendment to impose more safeguards for another of the expiring provisions, the roving wiretap authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Nine Democrats and Senator Lee voted to approve the bill.  The next stop is the Senate floor.  Stay tuned!

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