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Statement on Renewal of the PATRIOT Act

For one brief moment in December, it seemed as though the United States Senate had acquired a backbone.

Senators had unanimously approved bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the 16 expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The Senate bill, though far from perfect, went a long way toward correcting the Act’s most glaring deficiencies. So when the legislation emerged from a House-Senate conference committee stripped of the key Senate provisions, a bipartisan group of senators went to the barricades, mustering the votes to defeat the conference report and forcing the White House to accept a short-term extension of the Act while negotiations resumed.

Then, just as suddenly, the rebellion was over. The White House grudgingly offered a few modest concessions and most of the insurgents fell into line, pronouncing themselves ready to support the legislation. On March 2, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 89-10; today, the House of Representatives followed suit.

By accepting the administration’s terms, Congress surrendered its one real opportunity to fine-tune the PATRIOT Act and temper its excesses. Thus, the final bill fails to require the government to show any connection between the private business records it is seeking and a suspected terrorist or spy. It fails to require the government to make a comparable showing to issue the secret subpoenas known as National Security Letters (NSLs). And it fails to provide for meaningful judicial review of the gag orders imposed on the recipients of a court order or NSL.

All of these problems pale in comparison to the illegal, warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens that has recently come to light. Yet the deal ratified today sends a troubling signal to all who look to Congress to curb such lawless behavior.

The senators and representatives who led the fight for reform of the PATRIOT Act deserve the gratitude of the American people. Their continued vigilance will be greatly needed in the months and years ahead.

Mark Agrast is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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