Sens. Wyden, Udall: Americans would be ‘Stunned’ at Justice Department’s Surveillance Powers
By Common Dreams
March 16, 2012
Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have expressed concerns that the US Justice Department is abusing provisions in the Patriot Act.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) warned that the government is secretly interpreting sweeping surveillance powers in section 215 of the Patriot Act.
They also warned that this “top secret intelligence operation” as the New York Times reported, is “not as crucial to national security as executive branch officials have maintained.”
The senators said Americans would be “stunned” to learn of the nature of this intelligence program.
The dispute is over the government’s ability to obtain a secret foreign order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain business records and other items relevant to terrorism or espionage. The specifics of the program are classified.
The letter also expressed discontent over the Obama Administrations failure to establish a “regular process for reviewing, redacting and releasing significant opinions” about the Patriot Act. The senators complained that “not a single opinion has been redacted.”
* * *
Democratic Senators Issue Strong Warning About Use of the The Patriot Act, The New York Times:
For more than two years, a handful of Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee have warned that the government is secretly interpreting its surveillance powers under the Patriot Act in a way that would be alarming if the public — or even others in Congress — knew about it.
On Thursday, two of those senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — went further. They said a top-secret intelligence operation that is based on that secret legal theory is not as crucial to national security as executive branch officials have maintained.
The senators, who also said that Americans would be “stunned” to know what the government thought the Patriot Act allowed it to do, made their remarks in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. after a Justice Department official last month told a judge that disclosing anything about the program “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
The Justice Department has argued that disclosing information about its interpretation of the Patriot Act could alert adversaries to how the government collects certain intelligence. It is seeking the dismissal of two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits — by The New York Times and by the American Civil Liberties Union — related to how the Patriot Act has been interpreted.
The senators wrote that it was appropriate to keep specific operations secret. But, they said, the government in a democracy must act within publicly understood law so that voters “can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf” — even if that “obligation to be transparent with the public” creates other challenges.
“We would also note that in recent months we have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the ‘intelligence collection operation,’ ” they added. “This has come as a surprise to us, as we were initially inclined to take the executive branch’s assertions about the importance of this ‘operation’ at face value.”
The dispute centers on what the government thinks it is allowed to do under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which agents may obtain a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowing them to get access to any “tangible things” — like business records — that are deemed “relevant” to a terrorism or espionage investigation.
* * *
Two Democratic senators urged the Obama administration Thursday to declassify secret court rulings that give the government far wider domestic spying powers under the Patriot Act than intended.
The 10-year-old measure, hastily adopted in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, grants the government broad surveillance powers with little oversight that can be used domestically.
While much has been written and debated about the bill’s powers and efficacy, there’s evidently much more going on than the public knows.
A secret tribunal known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court has issued classified rulings about the Patriot Act that U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) say expand the government’s surveillance powers even more.
At issue, the lawmakers said, is section 215 of the Patriot Act. The sweeping power, one of the most controversial in the law, allows the secret FISA court to authorize broad warrants for most any type of record, including those held by banks, internet companies, libraries and doctors. The government does not have to show a connection between the items sought under a section 215 warrant and a suspected terrorist or spy: the authorities must assert the documents would be relevant to an investigation. Those who receive such an order are not allowed to tell anyone, ever, that such records were requested.
The senators, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, wrote:
“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”