Civil Liberties Advocates’ Worst Fears Realized with Patriot Act Scandal

People For the American Way Calls for Immediate Congressional Action to Remedy Situation

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Americans learned today that the F.B.I. has been abusing its authority under the Patriot Act to obtain private information about American citizens without judicial approval. So says a report issued today by the Department of Justice’s inspector general.

At issue are “national security letters”—an executive branch mechanism that was greatly expanded by the Patriot Act and essentially allows the government to circumvent the longstanding requirement that warrants be obtained before individuals’ private data, such as telephone records, bank statements, or Internet data can be examined without those individuals’ approval. According to the inspector general’s report, the F.B.I. has been obtaining national security letters inappropriately or even illegally, and the result has been an unwarranted intrusion into Americans’ privacy.

“This scandalous abuse of power is exactly why we opposed the Patriot Act in the first place,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way, a national nonpartisan civil rights and liberties organization. “Our nation’s founders made the judiciary an independent check on the executive branch of government for a reason. They knew that without checks and balances, it is far too easy for government officials to abuse their power to the detriment of our constitutional rights. That’s exactly what we’re seeing now. The Patriot Act undermines checks and balances, and this is the consequence.”

Numerous civil liberties organizations and privacy advocates, including People For the American Way, opposed the Patriot Act when it was first introduced in 2001 and when provisions of the act were reauthorized last February, in part because of fears that national security letter authority would be abused. Today, those advocates called on the new Congress to make the repeal of those provisions of the Patriot Act a top priority.

“The fact is, it is possible to protect civil rights and liberties and make Americans more secure. Unfortunately, this administration appears to be doing neither,” Neas said. “Those who have abused their authority or broken the law must be held accountable. And Congress must realize that as long as these egregious provisions of the Patriot Act remain in place, our civil liberties will suffer. Congress should move to repeal these provisions, including the ones involving national security letters, immediately. We commend Senator Patrick Leahy and the others who have called for hearings into this matter, and we urge them to move quickly. We also encourage them to investigate other Bush administration threats to Americans’ civil liberties, including the NSA warrantless wiretapping program and a recent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order regarding that program.”

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