Take The Time To Get PATRIOT Right

[Our guest blogger, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.]

The Bush’s Administration’s tendencies to unilateralism — aided and abetted by conservative leaders in Congress — have produced some of the worst decisions, scandals and excesses of the last four years.

It’s happening again with the rewrite of the USA PATRIOT Act, but you may not be aware of the details.

In the Senate, we worked hard to produce a balanced, bipartisan bill that passed the Judiciary Committee and the Senate unanimously. Chairman Arlen Specter and I felt it important to work as hard as we could toward producing a bill that could be broadly supported inside and outside of the Congress, and I applaud his efforts toward that goal. Conservative leaders in the House followed a different path that excluded much of the input from Democratic members and even from the Republican rank and file.


When the time came to write a compromise bill in the House-Senate conference, the Bush Administration and congressional conservatives reverted again to unilateralism, closing the doors to conferees with whom they disagreed. The bill they produced is far less balanced than the Senate bill.

The result is a proposed conference “agreement” that, predictably, falls short of the more balanced Senate bill and is drawing fire from both sides of the aisle.

Congressional leaders tried to rush an earlier version through the House and Senate before Thanksgiving, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter cooperated with me in buying more time. And in just two weeks we already have been able to make some substantial improvements — for instance, in getting four-year instead of seven-year sunsets. Now they’re trying to force final House and Senate votes by the end of this week.

The remaining concerns about the conference report center in particular on the use of National Security Letters (NSLs), and on inadequate checks for use of secret FISA court orders for library records and other sensitive information.

The reason we are even going through the process of reviewing and renewing the PATRIOT Act itself is a fruit of bipartisanship in writing the first PATRIOT Act. In October 2001, then-Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and I teamed up to insist on adding sunset provisions to the bill. These sunsets set an expiration date of December 31, 2005, on certain government powers that had some of the greatest potential to affect the civil liberties of the American people, to ensure that Congress would revisit the PATRIOT Act within a few years and consider refinements to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans more effectively. We prevailed, and the sunsets were included.


Senator John Sununu (R-N.H.) and I now are building a bipartisan coalition of senators to win more time for Congress to make this a better bill. Our coalition now includes Sens. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and it is growing day by day.

Security and liberty are always in tension in a free society, and especially after the attacks of 9/11. In a dictatorship, laws are obeyed through force of arms. In America, our laws are obeyed with the consent of the governed. We need to do all we can to make sure the PATRIOT Act has appropriate checks and balances and oversight so these powers given to government agencies can have the confidence of the American people. Congress should not rush ahead to enact flawed legislation to meet a deadline that is within our power to extend.

Ben Franklin said that those who would give up liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security. We are the current stewards of the liberty that, thanks to our forebears, is our birthright as Americans. We owe it to the American people — past, present and future — to get this right.

— Patrick Leahy