On December 31, three sections of the Patriot Act will expire. Congress will undoubtedly pass legislation in the next two months, and it is critical that meaningful reforms to this overbroad law are included.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has forwarded a bill that does not sufficiently protect our privacy rights; it makes minimal reforms to the Patriot Act.
The ACLU believes that our best chance to amend the Patriot Act to protect Americans' rights this year is in the House of Representatives. Congressmembers Conyers, Nadler and Scott have introduced HR 3845, the USA Patriot Amendments Act of 2009, to make substantial change that would:
•Protect the privacy of records. The bill amneds the national security letter authority so that government can only access communications, financial and credit records when they pertain to a terror suspect or spy. Currently, the government can collect the records of anyone it deems "relevant" to an investigation, without any oversight by an impartial court.
•Protect First Amendment Rights. HR 3825 requires that gag orders that come with national security letters meet traditional First Amendment standards. If a receipient of one of these requests wishes to speak out about the government's actions, the burden will be on the government to convince a court that national security will be jeopardized if the recipeint is not gagged.
•Protect the privacy of homes and businesses. The Patriot Act made it easier for the government to secretly conduct searches without giving prior notice by authorizing "sneak and peek" searches whenever notice would jeopardize an investigation. HR 3845 reins in this authority by removing the broad catch-all, but permits government officials to continue secret searches in emergency or urgent circumstances.
Even with these improvements, HR 3845 needs to be strengthened in two important ways:
1.Target terror prosecutions on those who intend to help terrorists. The bill should also amend the Patriot Act's so-called "material support" provision, which permits the prosecution of those who work with or for charities that give humanitarian aid in good faith to war-torn countries.
2.Limit the government's ability to obtain tangible evidence, even if it's not related to a terrorist. The Patriot Act permits the government to get a secret warrant for "any tangible thing," such as library or medical records, by showing only that the records are "relevant" to an investigation. The bill should require the government to show that the records relate to a suspected terrorist or spy to minimize the number of innocent people who are swept into terrorism investigations and government databases.
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