Renewing the expiring portions of the Patriot Act

So some provisions of the Patriot Act are expiring this year, so to renew, we get hearings in Congress to make the case to renew them.

Thankfully we have two US Senators, Al Franken (D-MN) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), who are questioning the case for renewal.  Senator Al Franken asked David Kris from the Dept of Justice about the 4th amendment as reported in the Washington Independent.

Noting that he [Al Franken] received a copy of the Constitution when he was sworn in as a senator, he proceeded to read it to Kris, emphasizing this part:  “no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“That’s pretty explicit language,” noted Franken, asking Kris how the “roving wiretap” provision of the Patriot Act can meet that requirement if it doesn’t require the government to name its target.

Kris looked flustered and mumbled that “this is surreal,” apparently referring to having to respond to Franken’s question. “I would defer to the other branch of government,” he said, referring to the courts, prompting Franken to interject: “I know what that is.”

Kris explained that the courts have held that the law’s requirements that the person be described, though not named, is sufficient to meet the demands of the Constitution. That did not appear to completely satisfy Franken’s concerns.

Meanwhile, Senator Russ Feingold asked about sneak and peak provision in the Patriot Act, from the Huffington Post.

In the debate over the PATRIOT Act, the Bush White House insisted it needed the authority to search people’s homes without their permission or knowledge so that terrorists wouldn’t be tipped off that they’re under investigation.

Now that the authority is law, how has the Department of Justice used the new power? To go after drug dealers.

Only three of the 763 “sneak-and-peek” requests in fiscal year 2008 involved terrorism cases, according to a July 2009 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Sixty-five percent were drug cases.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) quizzed Assistant Attorney General David Kris about the discrepancy at a hearing on the PATRIOT Act Wednesday. One might expect Kris to argue that there is a connection between drug trafficking and terrorism or that the administration is otherwise justified to use the authority by virtue of some other connection to terrorism.

He didn’t even try. “This authority here on the sneak-and-peek side, on the criminal side, is not meant for intelligence. It’s for criminal cases. So I guess it’s not surprising to me that it applies in drug cases,” Kris said.

“As I recall it was in something called the USA PATRIOT Act,” Feingold quipped, “which was passed in a rush after an attack on 9/11 that had to do with terrorism it didn’t have to do with regular, run-of-the-mill criminal cases. Let me tell you why I’m concerned about these numbers: That’s not how this was sold to the American people. It was sold as stated on DoJ’s website in 2005 as being necessary – quote – to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists.”

The irony is that two of the most liberal Senators, Franken and Feingold, are the one’s challenging Barack Obama’s Department of Justice on the constitutionality of the Patriot Act and how one provision is rarely used to protect us from terrorists (0.4% of sneak and peeks), but to prosecute drug dealers.  And thankfully Russ Feingold is no longer alone in the Senate on this issue.

It would be nice if those right wing folks over at Fox or the teabaggers would acknowledge, that liberals and progressives, are fighting to check expanded government powers, to protect our civil liberties.

-Josh

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