Senate Committee's Positive Steps on Patriot Act Welcome, But Flaws Remain

July 21, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – On the same day the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a Patriot Act reauthorization bill, the American Civil Liberties Union today called legislation unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to modify the act a step in the right direction, but said that it still fails to fully protect the Bill of Rights.

“Senators worked hard, in good faith, to improve the Patriot Act and this bill takes some welcome steps in the right direction, although significant flaws remain,” said Tim Edgar, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel. “Although we cannot endorse it, this bill is substantially better, from a civil liberties perspective, than the House bill.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee today unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would amend the Patriot Act and make all but two provisions permanent.

Under the modified bill, the use of secret orders to search Americans’ personal medical, financial and library records under Section 215 would remain in place, but with a standard requiring some individual suspicion, although a very loose connection to a suspect would allow the government to obtain innocent persons’ records. And, while the bill’s time limits on notification for the use of “sneak and peek” powers under Section 213 (7 days for the initial period, with 90 days for renewal periods) are welcome, a troubling loophole could allow the government to set them aside because the limits can be waived “if the facts of the case justify” a longer period.

The bill contains provisions that reform the National Security Letter authority expanded by Section 505 of the Patriot Act. Under the NSL power, the FBI can issue its own internal search orders – without judicial review – to obtain credit reports, communications service provider records, and so-called “financial records.” The bill provides a right to challenge this, but still contains an automatic, permanent secrecy order that will be difficult to challenge. While calling the changes positive first steps, the ACLU said further corrections are needed to satisfy the federal court that struck down a NSL statute because it violates the First and Fourth Amendments.

The bill extends sunsets on Sections 215 (FISA search orders) and 206 (roving wiretaps) for another four years. The bill also includes some improvements to the “roving wiretap” power, although these do not meet the same standard of protections for privacy as in criminal investigations.

“We commend members for working together, and while the bill remains flawed, we look forward to continuing to work with the Judiciary Committee in the future to address these and other civil liberties concerns,” Edgar said.

To read the ACLU’s letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the legislation, go to:

For more on the ACLU’s concerns with the Patriot Act, go to:

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