Congress is poised to approve new legislation that amounts to the first substantive expansion of the controversial USA Patriot Act since it was approved just after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Acting at the Bush administration’s behest, a joint House-Senate conference committee has approved a provision in the 2004 Intelligence Authorization bill that will permit the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to demand records from a number of businesses without the approval of a judge or grand jury if it deems them relevant to a counter-terrorism investigation.
The measure would extend the FBI’s power to seize records from banks and credit unions to securities dealers, currency exchanges, travel agencies, car dealers, post offices, casinos, pawnbrokers and any other business that, according to the government, has a “high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters.” Such seizures could be carried out with the approval of the judicial branch of government.
Until now only banks, credit unions, and similar financial institutions were obliged to turn over such records on the FBI’s demand.
Shortly after the conference agreement was reached, the House of Representatives approved the underlying authorization bill by a margin of 263 to 163. The measure is expected to pass the Senate shortly.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it was “disappointed” with the House’s approval, but also expressed satisfaction that a number of lawmakers on both left and right decided to oppose the bill because they oppose the records provision, whose inclusion in the bill was discovered by staff aides only last week.
Particularly notable in Thursday’s House vote was the defection by several conservative Republicans from the administration’s fold.
“This PATRIOT Act expansion was the only controversial part of this legislation, and it prompted more than a third of the House, including 15 conservative Republicans, to change what is normally a cakewalk vote into something truly contested,” said Timothy Edgar, ACLU Legislative Counsel.
“One need look no further than this vote to get an effective gauge of the PATRIOT Act’s lack of popularity on Capitol Hill and among the American people,” he said.
The USA PATRIOT Act which gives unprecedented powers to the FBI and the federal government as a whole and was rammed through Congress at the administration’s behest just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks has evoked great controversy.
An unusual coalition of liberal, left, and right-wing groups is convinced that the law’s expansion of the government’s surveillance and investigatory powers threatens individual freedoms and privacy rights.
More than 200 local governments, including some of the country’s largest cities, have approved resolutions upholding the full enjoyment of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution and urging a narrowing of the USA PATRIOT Act, while the Senate Judiciary Committee has been holding a series of critical hearings over the past month about the Act’s impact.
Members of the Judiciary Committee, including Republican Larry Craig of Idaho and five Democratic senators, sent a letter to the conference committee earlier this week urging it strip the new provision from the intelligence bill so that it could be taken up by their Committee in public hearings. The provision has never been publicly debated.
“I’m concerned about this,” Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, who tried unsuccessfully to limit the life of the new provision, told the New York Times. “The idea of expanding the powers of government gives everyone pause except the Republican leadership.”
The government wants these powers in order to more effectively prosecute the “war on terrorism,” although critics warn that, once given these powers, the FBI may use them in cases that are not relevant to terrorism in order to gather evidence against other targets of investigation.
Indeed, recent Senate hearings have covered incidents in which information about individuals was obtained by the FBI through the use of its counter-terrorism powers even though the investigations were directed against what the ACLU called “garden-variety criminals.”
The provision not only permits the FBI to seize records from more kinds of businesses; it also forbids businesses from informing their clients about the seizures.
In that respect, it is comparable to a particularly controversial section of the PATRIOT Act permitting the FBI to seek an order for library records for an “investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities” and imposing a gag order on librarians, who are prohibited from telling anyone that the FBI demanded the records. Librarians and civil-liberties groups have sued the government to have that section declared unconstitutional.
“The more checks and balances against government abuse are eroded, the greater that abuse,” said the ACLU’s Edgar. “We’re going to regret these initiatives down the road.”