House unanimously votes to defy White House on sunsets
Congressional conferees will begin meeting today to resolve differences in House and Senate versions of the USA PATRIOT Act. On Wednesday, November 9, the House of Representatives voted unanimously today to instruct conferees to attach four-year sunsets to some of the most controversial sections of the PATRIOT Act and a provision in the Intelligence Reform bill. Among the PATRIOT Act provisions that would be affected by the sunsets are those that have expanded federal authorities’ ability to use roving wiretaps and look at individuals’ library and bookstore records. The White House has been seeking to make the provisions permanent – or to have 10-year sunsets.
“The House of Representatives sent an important signal yesterday about the importance of safeguarding Americans’ civil rights and liberties,” said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. “It is significant that not a single member of the House spoke out against attaching these sunsets – even though the White House has vigorously opposed them. We hope that the conference committee will agree to sunset these egregious measures.”
The Senate previously passed with bipartisan support a version of the bill that included sunsets and some other corrective measures, although many loopholes and threats to civil liberties remain in the bill.
Neas noted that the dangers of expansive power and loose oversight were highlighted in a November 6 Washington Post article that reported that the FBI uses more than 30,000 “National Security Letters” a year to spy on average Americans. Under the PATRIOT Act, an FBI field supervisor can sign a National Security Letter, without oversight or instruction from a judge, prosecutor, or grand jury, to order banks, Internet providers, credit agencies or telephone companies to turn over records even on individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing. The Post also reported that rather than destroying records deemed irrelevant to an investigation, the FBI has been ordered to keep the data in an effort to “mine” the information at a later date.
Neas said members of the conference committee have an opportunity to protect Americans’ rights and liberties by enacting meaningful checks and balances on the immense power given to the federal government by the PATRIOT Act.