The Patriot Act and the Big Picture on Surveillance

Three years ago, Congress voted to reauthorize the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (Patriot Act) and leave its expanded anti-terror authorities largely intact. Since then, we have learned that our government gravely abused provisions of that Act; courts have struck down sections of it as unconstitutional; Congress has expanded other intelligence surveillance laws; and the Attorney General has lowered the standard for conducting surveillance.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report entitled “Reclaiming Patriotism.” Our report details Patriot Act abuses and outlines our suggestions for reforms. It also encourages members of Congress to reevaluate recent changes made to other laws that have paved the way for the expansion of government-sponsored surveillance including the gutting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the recent revamping of the Attorney General Guidelines to allow law enforcement to conduct physical surveillance without suspicion. “Reclaiming Patriotism” was delivered to congressional offices on Capitol Hill, as well as posted to our newly re-launched site www.reformthepatriotact.org.

On December 31, 2009, three provisions of the Patriot Act will sunset. This is the perfect opportunity for Congress to examine all of our surveillance laws and to reform those that have been found unconstitutional or have been used unlawfully to collect information on innocent people. We are urging Congress to extend this re-examination to include not just the authorities found in the original Patriot Act, but also other related surveillance authorizations including last year’s changes to the FISA and the Attorney General Guidelines.

In recent years, Congress has approached our surveillance legislative structure in piecemeal fashion. We at the ACLU believe that only by understanding the larger picture of the combined effects of Patriot Act and other expansions of power can Congress make an informed, consistent and principled decision about whether and how to amend all of these very powerful surveillance tools.