Sign On to Oppose PATRIOT Act Reauthorization
This letter includes footnotes not displayed below. View the footnotes in the PDF version of the letter.
Hard copies of this letter were distributed to members of Congress on February 2, 2010. The letters are still open for signatures and copies with updated signature lists may be distributed later in the year.
We, the undersigned, write to urge President Obama and members of Congress to reject the PATRIOT Act in its current form, rather than extend its expiring provisions without imposing meaningful protections to ensure transparency and enable oversight going forward.
When the Act was originally passed, civil liberties advocates decried it, both for the inadequate congressional process exploring its sweeping changes to longstanding law—including some that federal courts have since held unconstitutional—and also for giving the government the authority to invade the privacy of law-abiding individuals without meaningful checks and balances. The Act has been in place for nearly a decade, and its implementation has repeatedly demonstrated that those fears were, and unfortunately remain, well-founded.
Powers granted by the PATRIOT Act have been systematically abused by government agents. For example, the PATRIOT Act expanded the federal government’s power to use national security letters (NSLs) to obtain “customer and consumer transaction information…from communications providers, financial institutions, and credit agencies” without a warrant. A 2007 report from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General found “a variety of instances in which the FBI used [NSLs] contrary to statutory limitations, Attorney General Guidelines, or internal FBI administrative guidance or policies.”
Multiple other government investigations have documented further abuses of PATRIOT Act powers, as well as other domestic spying authorities. For instance, one Inspector General report examined the government’s warrantless wiretapping scheme (also known as the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”), whose continuing secrecy has prompted complaints from several members of Congress. Despite its contours remaining undisclosed and the executive branch invoking the state secrets privilege to frustrate judicial review, Congress in 2008 authorized the previously illegal TSP.
Finally, officials have confirmed that the Inspector General is currently preparing yet another analysis documenting widespread and systemic abuses by the FBI of its powers to spy on Americans. Not only have authorities invaded the privacy of millions of law-abiding Americans, but they have repeatedly violated even the few remaining laws designed to protect civil liberties.
As Congress considered its first reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission issued its report on the government’s counterterrorism measures. The Commission warned that, “while protecting our homeland, Americans should be mindful of threats to vital personal and civil liberties.” It recommended that, as Congress considered reauthorization, “the burden of proof for retaining a particular governmental power should be on the executive to explain (a) that the power actually materially enhances security and (b) that there is adequate supervision of the executive’s use of the powers to ensure protection of civil liberties.”
Congress ignored the Commission’s recommendation. As a result, the government’s use of PATRIOT Act powers has remained subject to inadequate checks, and continues to lack the transparency necessary to enable effective congressional oversight.
Given the recurring abuse of domestic spying authorities, and the executive branch’s failure to satisfy congressional information requests, any reauthorization of surveillance powers—including those included within the PATRIOT Act—should include overdue reforms to ensure transparency, oversight and accountability across the government’s various domestic spying programs.
The reauthorization bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, failed to include many proposed reforms, including those that would simply have required investigators to demonstrate some relevance to national security before invoking intrusive powers. Given the recurring abuses of NSLs and wiretaps, such reforms would be a small—and still inadequate—step toward ensuring that the government operates within its statutory authority. Yet Congress has overlooked even such basic measures.
To ensure that the government does not continue abusing its powers and violating the rights of law-abiding Americans, much stronger reforms—some of which may be found in the JUSTICE Act developed by Senator Feingold and others—are needed.
The Framers of our Constitution established a system in which the Commander-in-Chief remains subject to checks and balances, including those in the Bill of Rights. The PATRIOT Act up-ended this delicate equilibrium and Congress should act now to correct it and restore the rights of the American people.