Perils of the Patriot Act

During the past week, we’ve heard about a series of major violations of our civil liberties, including the extremely alarming news that the National Security (NSA) is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon. This wholesale snooping on innocent Americans is an unacceptable violation of one of our most basic freedoms, the right to privacy and to be free from government surveillance, and one of many unintended but predictable consequences of the USA Patriot Act.

I proudly voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act three times because of its potential for abuse, and more people are starting to see that abuse. Even former Vice President Al Gore — not someone I normally agree with — had the right response to the NSA report, tweeting “In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” It’s not just you, Al. I agree!

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Of course, what’s happening with the NSA is just the latest example of the government abusing its power. We’ve all heard about the Internal Revenue Service scandal, in which one of the most powerful agencies in the government deliberately targeted conservative organizations for audits and other forms of harassment. We’ve all heard about what happened with Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose phone was tapped by the Justice Department even though Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee “that potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.”

Needless to say, what Holder said under oath is sharply at odds with what happened to Rosen, and I’ve joined with my Judiciary Committee colleagues in sending a letter to the attorney general  requesting that he appear before the committee again to explain these discrepancies.

Then, just this past Friday, The Washington Post reported that the NSA and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet services, including Google, Facebook and YouTube, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs. Who knows what we’ll learn next!

When thinking about all of these scandals, I’m reminded of what James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51 in the early days of our country:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

In recent years, many members of both parties have forgotten Madison’s lesson — a lesson that infuses our founding document, the U.S. Constitution — that government powers must be limited because governments, by their very nature, have a hard time “controlling” themselves. During the Bush years, many Republicans ignored that truth, and in the Obama era, many Democrats have ignored it too. What’s happening with the NSA, the IRS, the DOJ and other agencies should correct the misguided idea that it’s OK to give the government more powers so long as the “right” party is in power — because parties change. And, to quote Madison again, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

For all of these reasons and more, I voted against the USA Patriot Act, which  despite its nice name was written in such a sweeping way that it opened the door for the NSA to invade the privacy of millions of Americans. That is because the USA Patriot Act’s Section 215 allows the FBI to seek the production of “tangible things” to obtain foreign intelligence and to protect against clandestine intelligence activities.

But because the statute does not require that either the caller or recipient of the call be a foreign agent or located abroad, you can see how the FBI could be tempted to collect broad swaths of data concerning Americans’ telephone calls to detect patterns of activity, as many analysts suggest may have happened in this case.

That is why on June 6, I joined several of my House colleagues in sending a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander requesting more information concerning their agencies’ data collection activities.

Given public outrage about the NSA’s abuse of power, it is time for Congress to reexamine all sections of the USA Patriot Act, and I am leading my House colleagues in starting that reexamination. Now is the time to work together to reduce the scope of government power before it becomes so large and so impenetrable that regaining our freedoms becomes almost impossible. Now is our moment, and we must seize it.

Labrador, who has represented Idaho’s 1st district since 2011, serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.