Idaho Examiner - Sen. Larry Craig News Releases

Monday, December 19, 2005

Reviewing, Revising, Renewing — The Patriot Act

by Senator Larry Craig

Back in August, shortly after reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act was approved by the Senate, I wrote a piece praising the role of Idahoans in improving the Patriot Act and protecting Americans’ civil liberties. Now, as 2005 and the first session of the 109th Congress draw to a close, it’s time for an update on the progress of the Patriot reauthorization.

Since then, the House passed its own version of the bill, and members of the House and Senate were appointed to a conference committee to resolve the differences. On December 14, the House approved the conference report.

In the buildup to the Senate vote, my name has been thrown around quite a bit on the pages of the newspapers, because I made it known that I would not be supporting the conference report. Why not? While the bill does preserve important tools for law enforcement, it doesn’t do enough to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.

The conference report would allow the government to obtain library, medical and gun records and other sensitive personal information under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, without demonstrating specific reasons to believe that person is connected to a suspected terrorist or spy. Currently, federal agents can simply say those records are relevant to an authorized intelligence investigation.

As business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have argued, this would allow government fishing expeditions targeting innocent Americans. We believe the government should be required to convince a judge that the records they are seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy. The Senate-passed version of the Patriot reauthorization had this requirement, but the conference report does not.

I am also concerned about the conference report’s treatment of the use of National Security Letters (NSLs). NSLs are similar to a subpoena from a court. Federal agents can use them to gather certain types of sensitive information about a suspect, including business records. Someone who receives an NSL is placed under a gag order and cannot discuss the NSL with anyone except an attorney, and must report that contact to the FBI. Furthermore, if someone feels they have been unjustly served an NSL, their ability to challenge it in court is harshly limited by the law, and the conference report does not allow meaningful judicial review of the gag order.

There are other concerns I have with the current form of the conference report for the Patriot reauthorization bill, but the space to discuss them is limited.

That being said, significant compromises were made when the House and Senate conferees met to iron out the differences between the two versions. The conference report, in its current form, includes real improvements on the Patriot Act that is on the books.

Who can Idahoans thank for these improvements? You can thank yourselves! Shortly after the original Patriot Act was approved in 2001, Idahoans from all walks of life, from all points of the political spectrum came to the Idaho Congressional Delegation with concerns about the Patriot Act and civil liberties. Hearing those concerns, we worked together to improve the law. The result has been improved safeguards for the rights of Americans.

Several areas of the law still need adjustment to better protect civil liberties. I believe that is why my colleagues joined me in supporting a filibuster to gain a limited extension of time for negotiators to work out the few remaining problems. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate to oppose reauthorization of Patriot until these concerns are met.

President Bush is right when he says we cannot afford to go one moment without the tools that the Patriot Act provides. However, we must strike a balance in the law, so our law enforcement officials have all the necessary tools to fight terrorism, while Americans’ civil liberties have all the protection they need as well.

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