by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 6, 2010
PATRIOT ACT DEMANDED REPEAL, NOT RENEWAL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- After a bit more of a year of President Barack Obama's first term, we have been treated to one disappointment after another.
Is it too much to expect that having a different President in the White House would mean an end to the abuses to our civil liberties? It apparently is, for President Obama signed a one-year extension of several provisions in the nation's main counterterrorism law, the Patriot Act, on Feb. 27.
Three key provisions of the law, which were due to expire on Feb. 28, were extended by Mr. Obama - court-approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations; court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones; and surveillance against a so-called "lone wolf," a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
Democrats in the Senate were unable to break a Republican fillibuster against restrictions and for a greater scrutiny on the government's authority to spy on Americans and seize their records and property.
While Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he "would have preferred to add oversight and judicial review improvements to any extension of expiring provisions," the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was disappointed that Republicans turned their back on compromise legislation advanced by his committee to protect the privacy of Americans. As a result, the Senate approved this flawed legislation on a voice vote. There was little opposition in the House, as its members voted 315 to 97 to extend the measure.
This was cynical politics at its worst. Senate Democrats knew that if a full debate on extending the Patriot Act took place, Republicans would have able to trot out their ever-popular "Democrats are wimps on national security" arguments in an election year. They've been hammering Democrats on national security issues for months, such as the Obama Administration's decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in a federal court and to move the remaining inmates in the Guantanamo Bay prison from Cuba to U.S. facilities.
So, as usual, the Democrats caved in and our civil liberties were sacrificed in the process. While both the House and the Senate are working on bills that would reform the Patriot Act, there is little hope that Democrats will prevail, especially in an election year. They have forgotten that, as elected officials, they are guardians of the Constitution.
Two of the few Democrats who publicly opposed the bill were Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York.
"As Members of Congress sworn to protect the rights and civil liberties afforded to us by the Constitution, we have a responsibility to exercise our oversight powers fully, and significantly reform the Patriot Act, ensuring that the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans are fully protected," Kucinich said in a statement. "More than eight years after the passage of the Patriot Act, we have failed to do so."
Nadler pointed to a recent report from the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General on the FBI's use of "National Security Letters" to obtain phone records without judicial oversight or a subpoena. Attorney General Eric Holder maintains that they are "a critical tool of national security investigations."
"These letters, issued with no court oversight, have been used to obtain all sorts of material, and have been joined with gag orders on the recipients that were recently struck down by the courts," Nadler said.
There may be a new President, but Congress is still unwilling to act as a check and balance on the power of the executive branch. The Patriot Act, a deep flawed bill that was hastily passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, remains on the books despite numerous documented examples of how it was abused.
This is yet another example of retreat by the Democrats. Rather than pushing for civil liberties protections, the Democratic majority issued the President another blank check. Rather than standing up for the Constitution, the Democratic majority ran and hid. And, just as disappointing, President Obama refused to expend any political capital on a issue of vital importance to Americans.
It may seem like I'm being too hard on the President, but I was hoping for a break from the Bush Administration's policies, not a continuation. It's bad enough the Obama Administration won't push for an investigation into the abuses of the Bush team, but for President Obama to meekly sign an extension for one of the worst laws in our nation's history is disgusting to me.
What will it take for Mr. Obama to finally show a little backbone?
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.