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Senator Warns PATRIOT Act is Worse Than You've Been Told

May 26, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Just as the Senate is about to approve a long-term reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act’s surveillance provisions, without any reforms, Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR] warns that the government is secretly using the provisions to justify surveillance activities that go beyond what we have been told.

Danger Room:

Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. But Wyden says that what Congress will renew is a mere fig leaf for a far broader legal interpretation of the Patriot Act that the government keeps to itself — entirely in secret. Worse, there are hints that the government uses this secret interpretation to gather what one Patriot-watcher calls a “dragnet” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.

“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden tells Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.

This is pretty important, so I recommend you read the whole thing.

Wyden proposed an amendment that would have made it harder for the government to justify bulk collection of information about citizens by requiring them to show that the information is relevant to a person who is subject to an authorized investigation. The current PATRIOT Act language only requires the government to show that the information they want to collect is relevant to an authorized investigation. That would seem to mean that the government could legally collect records of every person who borrows a certain book from a library, or everyone who has donated to Wikileaks, or any person who views a targeted website. Unfortunately, Wyden’s amendment will not get a vote because Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] has manipulated the Senate rules to push the reauthorization through in a way that allows no amendment votes and limits debate.

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