WASHINGTON - March 21 - Today the Committee – and the country – will have the opportunity to revisit a particularly flawed piece of legislation that was passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
I am referring, of course, to the USA Patriot Act. The National Security Letter, or NSL, authorities were dramatically expanded by Sections 358 and 505 of the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, in its haste to pass this flawed legislation, Congress essentially granted the FBI a blank check to obtain some very sensitive records about Americans, including people not under any suspicion of wrong-doing, without judicial approval.
So it is not surprising that the Justice Department’s Inspector General has identified serious problems with the implementation of these broad authorities. Congress gave the FBI very few rules to follow. As a result, Congress shares some responsibility for the apparently lax attitude and in some cases serious misuse of these potentially very intrusive authorities by the FBI.
This Inspector General report proves that “trust us” doesn’t cut it when it comes to the government’s power to obtain Americans’ sensitive business records without a court order and without any suspicion that they are tied to terrorism or espionage. It was a grave mistake for Congress to grant the government broad authorities and just keep its fingers crossed that they wouldn’t be misused. We have the obligation, the responsibility, to put appropriate limits on government authorities – limits that allow agents to actively pursue criminals and terrorists, but that also protect the privacy of innocent Americans.
Congress needs to exercise extensive and searching oversight of those powers, and it must take corrective action. The Inspector General report has shown both that current safeguards are inadequate and that the government cannot be trusted to exercise those powers lawfully. Congress must address these problems and fix the mistakes it made in passing and reauthorizing the flawed Patriot Act.