Thursday, March 02, 2006

Patriot Act Moves Through Senate

The tension between post-9/11 security interests and traditional American civil liberties was again on the table in the United States Senate yesterday as an overwhelming 84-15 vote ended the Democratic filibuster – led by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) -- on renewing the USA Patriot Act.

By a 95-4 vote, the Senate had earlier agreed to another measure that would slightly water down the law by adding protections for some people who have been targeted by government investigations. Though not changing the scope of the Patriot Act in any meaningful way, these modifications were allegedly meant to clarify the rights of people under surveillance and to further limit the government's ability to scrutinize library records.

"No one has the right to turn this body into a rubber stamp," said a defiant Feingold, who was the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act when it was passed by Congress immediately following the September 11 attacks.

It now appears that the way has been smoothed for clear sailing on extension of the Act in the House of Representatives and it will then quickly proceed to the White House for Bush’s signature. The Patriot Act had been temporarily renewed by the Senate earlier this year and is set to expire on March 10.

Feingold, who has become the leading voice against the Patriot Act in the Senate, watched as his Democratic colleagues took the administration’s bait on the incredibly weak White House compromise that would limit the government's power to compel information from people targeted in terror probes.

That measure passed earlier in the day by the 95-4 vote. Voting 'no' with Feingold were Senators Jim Jeffords (I-VT), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and the Senate's acknowledged constitutional expert, Robert Byrd (D-WV).

That amendment added the following stipulations to the Patriot Act:
  • Gives recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
  • Eliminates a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
  • Clarifies that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.
Here’s an excerpt of Feingold’s speech on the Senate floor yesterday after the vote to end his filibuster:
The rules of the senate have changed since the days of Jimmy Stewart and "Mr. Smith goes to Washington." One senator, no matter how strongly he or she feels, cannot single-handedly stop a bill when 60 or more of his or her colleagues are dead set on passing it. So obviously at this point, final passage of the reauthorization bill is now assured.

I am disappointed in this result obviously but I believe this fight has been worth making and my dedication to changing the patriot act is as strong now as it has ever been. We have made some progress since October 2001. The public understands the issues better and I think many of my colleagues do too.

Feingold then went on to read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights into the record to underscore his opposition to the Patriot Act and to emphasize the seriousness of his concerns.

And leave it to a Republican to use yet more fear-mongering as a way of making a political point. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) continued to support the Patriot Act, saying grimly on the Senate floor "Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead."


With the “compromise” amendment now in place, final Senate passage of the Patriot Act renewal is expected Friday.