Civil Liberties

Wait and Hurry Up

The artificial panic behind the rush to extend the PATRIOT Act


Just before midnight last Thursday, a White House autopen signed legislation extending controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act that were scheduled to expire the next day. President Obama authorized the use of a machine to produce a facsimile of his signature because he was traveling in Europe. But it was oddly appropriate, given the facsimile of congressional debate that preceded the bill's passage.

The extension was rushed through Congress based on a false sense of urgency, much like the original PATRIOT Act, which legislators did not even have time to read. Back then, 45 days after 9/11, the urgency was based on a fear of follow-up attacks. Last week the urgency supposedly was due to the long-anticipated expiration of three provisions: Section 215, which authorizes the government to demand "any tangible thing" it deems relevant to a terrorism investigation; Section 206, which lets the government obtain secret warrants for "roving wiretaps" without naming its target or specifying his location; and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which allows secretly authorized domestic surveillance of "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who are not connected to a foreign organization or government.

While members of Congress have had plenty of time to read the PATRIOT Act since 2001, many of them, perhaps most, still did not know what they were approving. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, Democrats who serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeatedly warned that the government conducts surveillance based on a "secret interpretation" of the PATRIOT Act, apparently involving Section 215, that cannot be discussed because it is classified.

Yet congressional leaders insisted the expiring powers—including the "lone wolf" provision, which has never been used—were absolutely essential to national security. Letting them lapse, even for a single day, claimed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would invite "dire consequences for our national security…giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country undetected."

Never mind that Congress could have temporarily extended these provisions to provide more time for debate and consideration of amendments. The point of the wait-and-hurry-up strategy used by the PATRIOT Act's supporters is to assume away the very issue to be debated: whether the benefits of the privacy-invading powers granted by the law are worth the damage they do to civil liberties.

The law's supporters pay lip service to such concerns, professing admiration for PATRIOT Act critics such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Expressing regret that the Senate did not have time for the "full and complete debate on the PATRIOT Act" he had promised, Reid called Paul "a very pleasant man with strong feelings," saying, "I have only the highest regard for him."

But when Paul's refusal to join the artificial panic delayed the vote Reid wanted, the majority leader quickly changed his tune. Thanks to Paul's "political grandstanding," Reid warned, the government might lose "some of the most critical tools it needs to counter terrorists." Referring to Paul's proposed amendment restricting the use of Section 215 to obtain firearm records, Reid averred that "he is fighting for an amendment to protect the right of terrorists…to cover up their gun purchases."

As Paul noted in response, this charge was much like saying that someone who thinks police should obtain a warrant before searching the home of a murder suspect must be in favor of murder. Paul forcefully rejected the bipartisan post-9/11 consensus that "we wouldn't be able to capture these terrorists if we didn't give up some of our liberties."

Among other things, Paul questions the "suspicious activity reports" that financial institutions must file for cash transfers of more than $5,000, a requirement that was expanded by the PATRIOT Act. Noting that supporters of this mandate, which generates 1 million or so reports a year, say "the courts have decided our bank records aren't private," Paul responded: "The hell they aren't. They should be private." If this is "political grandstanding," we need more of it.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Yet congressional leaders insisted the expiring powers?including the "lone wolf" provision, which has never been used?were..

    How do you know that type of surveillance is not used?

    1. Don't worry the government only uses the lone wolf provisions in the cases of highest need, such as people who question the government about lone wolf provisions.

      1. I love wolves, howling, social, and lone. 🙂

  2. BTW, 'facsimile' POTUS signatures are a long WH tradition but they were called secretaries then

  3. No surprise. This is how you run an abusive government. Debate stuff that doesn't matter. Rush through stuff that does matter. The more it matters, the less time you should spend on it.

    1. panem et circenses.

      So they don't have time to debate the PATRIOT act, but Al Franken has time to stoke his own ego by "inviting" representatives from Apple and Google to come to Washington to tell him what he already knew or could have found out about location services without the time and expense of a congressional hearing. And then, rather than spend time on something important, he publicly asks them to set up privacy policies, which they had already publicly stated they were going to provide anyway. (In other words, the anger of the market at Apple and Google accomplished changes, not Franken's show hearing.)

      This isn't to say that location services aren't an important topic, but like much of Congress' "work," Franken's hearings were all about making sure everyone know how important he is and how Congress defends us against menaces (more often than not phantom menaces).

      I don't mean to pick on Franken (OK, actually, I do?) since most Senators engage in real grandstanding like this. It shows where the "debate" is that any real raising of issues is seen as grandstanding, while fake debate and hearings that are actual grandstanding are seen as entirely appropriate and essential for the function of government.

      1. Untermensch, stand in front of the mirror...

        1. Didn't realize I was a senator compelling show hearings about non-issues while ignoring real issues, but I guess if that's what I look like to you?

          Seriously, I have no idea what you're trying to get at.

          1. I think Stuart's last name is Smalley.

            1. Ahh. Thank you. I'd forgotten all about Stuart Smalley. Now the comment makes sense.

              1. I thought it was a lot more fun to be thought crazy 😉

      2. Well, Franken did vote against the PATRIOT Act so there's that in his favor.

        1. But he voted for cloture on the one that mattered, so that's against him.

          He endorsed the "deal" that meant that only two amendments could be offered, the two least likely to pass. I'll give credit to the Udalls and Leahy and Wyden, all of whom voted for the initial cloture last Friday when it looked like amendments would be in order-- they wanted to offer their amendments.

          I give no such credit to Franken and Akaka and Durbin and the others who voted for the corrupt bargain, but then tried to cover themselves with their liberal constituents by voting when they knew it wouldn't make a difference.

          MNG, you simply can't argue that voting for cloture indicates some higher commitment to majority rule here. Voting for cloture also meant endorsing Harry Reid's idea of what amendments could be offered, because proceeding to cloture (under the Senate Rules) restricts what amendments can be offered without unanimous consent. Defeating it would have allowed other amendments to be introduced and forced to bring to a vote.

          1. So voting for cloture meant endorsing the procedural games and endorsing the idea that amendments that might have majority support would never get a vote, because the Majority Leader didn't want them to get a vote.

        2. ""Well, Franken did vote against the PATRIOT Act so there's that in his favor.""

          No he didn't. He voted against a renewal of some of the provisions. It's not like the whole act was up for reauthorization. The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act is here to stay. The time to stop it was when America was collectively shitting its pants.

      3. Our essential freedoms are being ripped away in plain sight of a compliant press, but instead, let's complain about Al Frankin.

    2. Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

      1. And of course manufacturing trouble as needed. If it isn't broken, fix it until it is.

  4. What the hell, closer to the topic than Google and Apple:

    Supreme Court rejects suit against John Ashcroft
    ...But in a unanimous decision in Ashcroft vs. Kidd, the high court ruled the attorney general was immune from such claims. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a key concurring opinion joined by three liberal justices, said judges should be wary of allowing suits targeting "national officeholders" working "in the area of national security."

    "Nationwide security operations should not have to grind to a halt," he said, while judges decide whether a top official has overstepped his authority....

    1. But the 8-to-0 vote (Justice Elena Kagan was recused because of her involvement as solicitor general) was hardly as unanimous as it seemed and did not resolve whether the material witness law was misused under President George W. Bush. The eight justices agree that qualified immunity protects Mr. Ashcroft. Beyond that, their views splinter.

      For himself and the court's four other conservatives, Justice Antonin Scalia goes beyond the limited holding to find that Mr. Kidd's detention was reasonable and didn't violate the Constitution. In separate opinions, however, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, all joined by Stephen Breyer, stressed that the holding "leaves unresolved whether the government's use of the material witness statute in this case was lawful."

      1. Not touching on the merits, but if Scalia and four other justices have an opinion, it's not going beyond the "limited holding." It's a majority opinion.

        1. But there is clearly a misstatement there because four Justices are named as opposing that position, and only eight were voting.

          We need some clarity here.

  5. I mentioned this in a weekend thread recently, but this is my second day of a new job. I'm not yet sure if I'll be able to waste time on HnR, so in case not, it's been a blast. Would someone make sure Suderman keeps using alt-text?

    1. Think of time spent here not as wasted but rather as an investment.

      1. An investment in futility.

  6. I thought this was from the Onion. Homeland Security deploys mind reading hardware.

  7. Alt-text: "I can seeee you!"

  8. "this charge was much like saying that someone who thinks police should obtain a warrant before searching the home of a murder suspect must be in favor of murder."

    Someone who doesn't want the city to buy iPads for kindergarten kids opposes education.
    Someone who is critical of the Drug War wants children to use drugs.
    Someone who opposes restrictions on self defense supports the initiation of violence.

    False dichotomies are everywhere.

  9. Odds, are some of those babies are hiding more than shit in their diapers

  10. Fuck Stuart Smalley !

    1. Why don't you pick on somebody with pubic hair?

  11. You really should see Harry Reid during the debate:

    Have a sick bag handy.

    1. "Does this mean the Patriot Act is perfect? Of course not." "We'd all like to have more debate."

      With all due respect, WTF? If this stuff is so flippin' important to the safety of The American People?, why doesn't Congress take the time to debate and get it perfect?

      1. "Does this mean the Patriot Act is perfect? Of course not." "We'd all like to have more debate the government to have more power."

      2. This.

        The fourth estate needs to be asking

        "Why, Senator Reid, if this legislation is so important did you leave it to the last minute to take care of? How can you justify risking a recalcitrant junior Senator holding up so weighty and important a bill? Surely common sense dictated take it up early in the term to insure that it got done on time, did it not?

        But of course, many "journalists" seem to think they were hired to read the press statements given to them.

  12. authorizes the government to demand "any tangible thing" it deems relevant to a terrorism investigation

    Too bad the Act apparently limits the power to only "tangible" things. Missed opportunity. 8-(

  13. Washington (AP)-Republican officials and voters, disappointed with the current field of Presidential candidates, have reacted to excitement to the news that John Boehner's Tears have finally decided to establish an exploratory committee for a 2012 presidential run. Insiders close to the effusions say that the decision comes with much agonizing deliberation, but that the call of voters for authentic emotional connection and a candidate who manifestly believes in something deeply while also exhibiting that he 'feels their pain' of the current hard times finally swayed Boehner's Tears.

  14. Referring to Paul's proposed amendment restricting the use of Section 215 to obtain firearm records, Reid averred that "he is fighting for an amendment to protect the right of terrorists?to cover up their gun purchases."

    What "terrorists"? We do remember how fucked up the so-called Terrorist Watch List is, don't we?

    Oh, wait. I know how this one goes. The very second that Team Blue's Holy Standard Bearer, the Great Barack, touched the Oval Office carpet with the sanctified sole of his foot the Terrorist Watch List became utter perfection. Is that about how it goes Harry?

    1. 'cause terrorists never obtain firearms except through licensed gun dealers who keep meticulous records, right? I mean, it's not like there's this massive open-air market in Pakistan where they can get AK-47s for fifty bucks, is it?


      1. Terrorists, just like criminals in the inner city, are always scrupulous about obtaining weapons legally.

    2. It only mattered that Reid convince one more voter than Sharron Angle could convince. He is certainly fortunate in his opponents.

  15. judges should be wary of allowing suits targeting "national officeholders" working "in the area of national security."

    The absolute last thing we need is national office holders worrying about some pesky civilian scrutinizing the legality of their actions. That way anarchy lies.

  16. "We'd all like to have more debate."

    "And, of course, when I say, 'more debate' I really mean 'no debate at all'."

    1. problem is, when you give an inch for debate it can quickly degnerate. The arguments go on tangent after tangent, every blowhard flapping their lips, eventually just a big messy mass debate. And who wants to mop the senate floor after that one?

    2. More debate. Moredebate. Moredebation. This word sounds familiar to me.

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  20. I wasn't aware that the whole "then the terrorists will have won" thing was still going strong; thanks for the reminder, Harry Reid.

    Everybody's singing with their hand on their heart about deeds done in the darkest hours
    It's just the sort of catchy little melody
    to get you singing in the showers

    Elvis Costello, not Godwin, but feel free to have a drink anyway.

  21. Not that I'd ever defend Bush, but weren't the Democrats using the PA to SLAM him during his last 4 years?

    The hypocrisy of politicians has no apparent bounds.

    1. And they'll use it to slam the next Republican president.

      1. But they don't want the Republitards to be able to slam them that they are soft on terrorism. Hence the rush to pass it without debate.

  22. "The artificial panic behind the rush to extend the PATRIOT Act."
    And the debt ceiling.

    1. PANIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PAAAAAAANNNNNNNIIIIICCCC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. I like how these dollar amounts set in stone in federal law never change. Like the $10,000 declaration limit to customs. That was put in quite a while ago, and with inflation it's the equivalent of about $5000 dollars now. This new $5000 trigger with inflation in a few years will be $4000 then $3000 then eventually, it will be the change rattling around in your pockets, walking around money will be considered suspicious activity.

  24. I hope the Capitol collapses on top of their heads while Ron Paul's out of session with common cold.

    1. What about Rand Paul?

      1. It's too late for him! Run while you can!

      2. And just for Epi:

        "Sex with animals!?! There's no time man!"

        1. MY NAME IS!?!

          1. My DVR missed the new episodes cause they changed the damn title!

      3. Martyr?

      4. Forgot about him. He'd be out with an infection, or something.

    2. This sounds like a "lone wolf" terror comment to me...

  25. ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

  26. eems relevant to a terrorism investigation; Section 206, which lets the government obtain secret warrants for "roving wir

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