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.



Most secretive administration ever!

Today we learn from the Washington Post that the army has moved non-classified material that was available to the public on a web site behind a password protected firewall, shutting out the public access to this information.

Army officials moved the Reimer Digital Library ( behind a password-protected firewall on Feb. 6, restricting access to an electronic trove that is popular with researchers for its wealth of field and technical manuals and documents on military operations, education, training and technology. All are unclassified, and most already are approved for public release.

Who is the government, we the people, this is our government not theirs, if the information is not classified we should be able to access it.  Yet at every turn, this administration has acted like that selfish little kid, that crouches over the table, covering something up with his arm and chin, and saying “mine, you can’t see it.”  Well that is how kids act, but we correct their bad manners, and let them know they have to share.  Fortunately there are ways to make them share (FOIA), but even more unfortunately the Bush administration has fought this transparency in governance at every turn.  Let us count the ways that I have emphasized in bold from the article:

For years, open-government advocates have complained about the Bush administration’s penchant for confidentiality, from the White House‘s long-standing refusal to release lists of presidential visitors to the secrecy surrounding the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program and Vice President Cheney‘s energy policy task force.

In 2006, the National Archives acknowledged that the CIA and other agencies had withdrawn thousands of records from the public shelves over several years and inappropriately reclassified many of them. Early in 2002, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft issued a memo urging federal agencies to use whatever legal means necessary to reject Freedom of Information Act requests for public documents.

Army officials said yesterday that they were compelled to limit access to the Reimer library site to comply with Department of Defense policies that call for tightening the security of military Web sites and to keep better track internally of who is accessing them and why.

You know what happens when you turn light on in a dark place, the vermin go scurrying for cover, well we need to shine the light on this administration and trust me the vermin are going to go scurrying.  The problem is the vermin have control of the light switch.


Government for the people

A got an e-mail from my friend who is involved with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MN COGI). This group is going to be involved with MN efforts to promote Sunshine Week which is March 16-22.

Personally, I like the idea of people taking charge of our government. Access to information will allow all of us to be watchdogs of the government. As the mainstream media consolidates and becomes beholden to large private equity firms or large corporations, we need to increase the ability of the average citizen to hold the government accountable.

We also need access to the laws, rules, regulations, ordinances that the government must operate within. In my job, I have come to learn that many times, whether from lags in training, ignorance, or institutionalized urban legends, that having access to that information can be crucial in advocating a position or challenging the bureaucracy.

In fact there are two tactics to take in using information to help yourself. Either you can find the information, like in Minnesota where you can find the statutes, rules, or in Minneapolis the ordinances that are the basis of what you are dealing with, which does depend on your ability to sort through tons of information. Fortunately, I think what I have sought has been decently organized, but that isn’t always the case.

Or the other tactic, is to ask the for the statute or rule that is the basis of their position, this may be the only option if you can’t find the language (it could be an urban legend). Being able to play stupid, in a non-challenging way, can be super effective. There are a lot of great government employees, but there are some, where asking for clarification on a policy, can be the most effective tactic because it may not directly challenge them.

Remember knowledge is power, and no one person can know everything. If you get passionate about a topic, or it directly impacts you, you could end up being the expert. Access to all of the information will empower you to make a difference, either by supporting your position or seeking change.