ACLU Disappointed at First Significant Expansion of PATRIOT ACT in Intelligence Bill, Takes Heart in Closer-Than-Expected Vote

November 20, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union expressed its disappointment at the House’s passage today of an intelligence bill that will expand PATRIOT Act records gathering powers by subjecting more businesses to “national security letter” authority, but pointed to today’s much closer-than-expected vote as another sign of the growing momentum to revisit and narrow the controversial USA PATRIOT Act.

While the authorization for intelligence funding normally passes by an overwhelming margin, it faced significant bipartisan resistance this morning due to last week’s discovery of an amendment that would, for the first time, expand the sweeping law enforcement powers granted the federal government in the PATRIOT Act. The Senate is expected to vote on the conference report this evening or tomorrow.

“This PATRIOT Act expansion was the only controversial part of this legislation,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, “and it prompted more than a third of the House, including 15 conservative Republicans, to change what is normally a cakewalk vote into something truly contested. One need look no further than this vote to get an effective gauge of the PATRIOT Act’s lack of popularity on Capitol Hill and among the American people.”

At issue is a provision in the final version the 2004 intelligence authorization bill, which passed the House this morning by a vote of 264 to 163. Last-minute efforts to strike the provision were unsuccessful.

The amendment, which is the only piece of the intelligence package that is at all controversial, would greatly expand the FBI’s ability to issue so-called national security letters to a wide variety of businesses. Currently, the Bureau is permitted to use such letters, which are issued at the sole discretion of FBI agents, only against traditional financial services like banks or credit unions.

Such authority would be the first substantial expansion of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, which has come under increasing fire in recent days for its aggressive use by the Justice Department against garden-variety criminals.

Most surprising, the ACLU said, was the defection of 15 right-wing Republican members. In addition to Idaho Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who has taken a leadership role in the fight to narrow certain invasive surveillance and investigative powers in the PATRIOT Act, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, Otter’s fellow Idahoan Mike Simpson, North Carolina’s Walter B. Jones and 11 other conservative lawmakers bucked their caucus to vote against the bill.

Practically, the change would, the ACLU said, further expand the FBI’s ability to force small business to invade their clients’ privacy without giving those so ordered any judicial recourse to stop unwarranted intrusions. It would also impose a gag order on business served with the letters, preventing them from informing their clients that they were forced to turn over the records.

“The more that checks and balances against government abuse are eroded, the greater that abuse,” Edgar added. “We’re going to regret these initiatives down the road.”

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