Reauthorization of the Patriot Act
|Reauthorization of the Patriot Act
|This podcast was delivered on December 16, 2005.|
Hello, this is Senator Barack Obama and today is Friday, December 16th, 2005.
You know four years ago, following 9/11, this body that I serve in, the United States Senate, passed the USA Patriot Act in order to give our nation's law enforcement the tools they needed to track down terrorists - terrorists who possibly right now are looking to exploit weaknesses in our laws and our security and carry out even deadlier attacks than we saw back then.
All of us agree that we need legislation to make it harder for suspected terrorists to go undetected in this country. All of us agree that we need to make it harder for them to organize and strategize and get flight licenses and sneak across our borders - every single America wants that to happen.
But soon after the Patriot Act passed, I began hearing concerns from people of every background, every political leaning that this law - the very purpose of which was to protect us - was also threatening to violate our rights and our freedoms as Americans. That it didn't just provide law enforcement the powers it needed to keep us safe, but powers that it didn't need to invade our privacy without cause or suspicion.
Now, what's happened in Washington, of course, is that the debate as usual has degenerated into this "either-or" type debate. So, either we're in favor of protecting our people from terror or we will protect our most cherished civil liberties. That's a false choice. It asks too little of us, assumes too little about America.
That's why as it's come time to reauthorize this law, there have been a group of senators, including myself, working in a bi-partisan way to show the American people that we can track down terrorists without trampling on our civil rights. We want to show the American people that the federal government will only issue warrants and execute searches because it needs to, not because it wants to. In other words, what we've been trying to do is to inject some accountability in this process - to get answers and to see evidence where there is suspicion.
So, a bi-partisan group of Senators several weeks ago actually came up with a compromise piece of legislation - you had people like Russ Feingold on the left and Larry Craig on the right agree to this bill. We passed it out of the Senate unanimously. It wasn't perfect but at least it addressed some of the most serious provisions, like the so-called "sneak-and-peek" provisions, that existed in current law.
Unfortunately, the house members decided they didn't like this bill. They put some rushed legislation together that fails to address the concerns that people had about the previous Patriot Act. So, just to give you a couple of examples: this legislation puts our own Justice Department above the law. When National Security Letters are issued this legislation that's been proposed allowed federal agents to conduct any search on any American, no matter how extensive or wide-ranging, without ever going before a judge to prove that the search is necessary. All they needed was sign-off from a local FBI official. That's it.
Once a business or a person received notification that they will be searched, they are prohibited from telling anybody about it; they can't challenge this automatic gag order in court. Despite the fact that judges have already found similar restrictions violate the First Amendment - the bill that is before the Senate disregards this case law and the right to challenge the gag orders.
If you do decide to consult an attorney for legal advice - you have to tell the FBI that you've done so already. This is unheard of - there is no such requirement in any other area of the law, and I don't see why it's justified here.
If somebody wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document, through library books they've read , phone calls they've made, e-mails that they've sent - this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear their plea, no jury will hear their case. And that's - that's just plain wrong.
Now, I'm happy to say that we had our first vote on this issue on the floor of the Senate today. There was a procedure that is called a "cloture vote." Cloture means that it ends debate, it eliminates the possibility of the filibuster. Those of us who thought this was a bad compromise voted against cloture, and a number of Republicans joined us and in fact cloture, which required 60 votes, did not succeed.
And so the Republican leadership is scrambling right now to figure out what they're going to do, and the White House has threatened that they are just going to let the Patriot Act lapse all together and will then blame Democrats if there is a terrorist attack prior to reauthorization of a new Patriot Act. Now that kind of rhetoric makes absolutely no sense, as you might imagine. If in fact the White House and the Republican leadership think that these provisions are absolutely vital, then you'd think that they would accept Democrats' offer to extend it for three months as we continue to work on this compromise. There's a lot of political posturing going on around this and I think that needs to end because the issues that we're dealing with here are too important to play politics with.
So, I am hopeful that we get an extension on the existing Patriot Act for three months; we can work out a compromise that ensures our civil liberties are protected; that provides for the critical judicial oversight that's at the core of most of our law enforcement processes; that still gives law enforcement the tools that they need in order to protect our homeland.
Now, having said all this let me also complain to you. As a consequence of the disorganization here in the Senate and whoever is running the ship, I am supposed to be flying over the Pacific Ocean right now - with my family - about to land in Hawaii for my vacation with my wife and kids. They have gone without me. My wife basically said, "Well, I hope you can make it, buddy" and took off. So, it looks like I'm stuck in Washington this weekend. As you might imagine, I'm not happy about this.
Despite that fact, I want to mention that I probably won't be doing a podcast until early January. I'm going to be traveling after my vacation to the Middle East, including Iraq and Israel. If the schedule and logistics allow it I'm going to try to record a podcast while I am in the Middle East. Either way I'll try to give you guys a full report when I get back.
So despite the fact that I'm feeling a little gloomy right now, the grinch has sort of stole my Christmas - he looks surprisingly like Bill Frist - nevertheless, I am hoping that all of you guys have a wonderful holiday season, a happy new year, and I look forward to talking to you soon.