Surveillance unchecked



When George W. Bush was in the White House, many prominent Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, spoke out against the intrusive surveillance permitted by the PATRIOT Act. But when the act came up for renewal in late February, Congress voted to leave intact some troubling impingements on privacy.

The provisions at issue allow roving wiretaps on multiple phones, search and seizure of a wide variety of private records (notoriously including library records), and "lone wolf" surveillance of noncitizens not known to be associated with foreign terrorist groups. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who backed limits on these powers, complained to The Washington Post that "some Republican senators" had nixed the reforms. But in the House, which approved renewal by a vote of 315 to 97, there was wide bipartisan support for preserving the law unchanged.

The PATRIOT Act provisions were renewed on the heels of a report from the Justice Department's inspector general detailing how federal investigators had failed to comply with existing restrictions on surveillance powers. National security letters, which allow officials to seize records without a court order and prohibit people who receive the letters from discussing them, were especially ripe for abuse, the report found.

As reason Contributing Editor Julian Sanchez reported in The American Prospect, "between 2003 and 2006…investigators obtained thousands of records from telecommunications providers using a made-up process called an 'exigent letter'—which essentially promised that a proper [national security letter] would be along shortly. Among those whose records were obtained in this way were reporters for The Washington Post and The New York Times." In thousands of cases, the government demanded such records with no official process at all, merely demanding them verbally or on notes, often in investigations having nothing to do with national security.