Saturday, December 17, 2005

Senate 1; Big Brother 0

Over the past few days, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has been leading a filibuster in the US Senate around the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act, some sections of which are expiring on December 31. For those of you not familar with a filibuster, it is where senators just keep debating and debating an issue incessantly, without ever allowing it to come to a vote. For the USA PATRIOT act, this is important, since if senators can drag the process past December 31, key sections of the bill will die before it can be extended.

Just on Friday, there was a vote to try to shut down the debate ("cloture") in the senate, which would have required a 60% majority to pass - the cloture vote failed to pass by 8 votes. So, unless something extraordinary happens in the next couple of weeks, it seems likely that several sections of the USA PATRIOT Act will die on the books. And I won't shed any tears for its passing... good riddance to bad garbage!

In the fall of 2001, when the United States was reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a bill was brought before the House and Senate. This bill was over 300 pages long, and had a slick-sounding name: the "USA PATRIOT Act", which was intended to make it easier to catch terrorists operating inside America's borders. Right after 9/11, being seen as soft on terror was an anathema for lawmakers, and thus this "USA PATRIOT Act" was passed with almost no debate and with an overwhelming majority. Most of the lawmakers had not even had time to read it.

It also helped that they had come up with a slick name for the bill: the name "USA PATRIOT Act" sounds very patriotic and as American as homemade apple pie. Let's face it, if they'd called it the "George Orwell Act" or the "Big Brother is Watching You Act" or the "Spying on American Citizens Act" (which I think are all more reflective of what the bill does), maybe the House and Senate would have probably thought about it a bit more before passing it.

The Patriot act was a hastily drawn up reaction to the terrorist actions of 9/11. The authors of the bill seem to have known it was an overreaction, and so they built into it a sunset provision, so that some of the more controversial provisions would expire at the end of this year, 2005.

Now, I've never really been a big fan of the USA PATRIOT Act. Yes, it has a purpose and has been useful since 9/11, but it was a rush job and is overly broad. It is something that was quickly thrown together, not properly studied, and was not adequately debated in either Congress or the Senate. I would personally prefer the USA PATRIOT act to disappear into the annals of history, and perhaps be replaced by another law that would be more carefully drafted and debated, and still provide for the needs of law enforcement, but without unduly impinging upon the privacy of people here in the United States. And so, in that light, I am very happy that the Senate, and in particular Russ Feingold, are looking out for our long-term interests by fighting the renewal of this Act.

Update: December 21

According to a Washington Post article this morning, one of the judges on the secret court overseeing the warrantless searches and wiretaps being done under the USA PATRIOT Act out of concern that the program was "legally questionable" and that the court's work was "tainted" by it. Click here for more.