Patriot Act Extended Until March 15

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Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus capitulated to the surveillance state last week, by supporting a continuing resolution (CR) that included a three month extension of Patriot Act mass surveillance authorities, which they claim to oppose. As Ed Snowden revealed, the NSA and FBI were using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to obtain the records of virtually every phone call made in the U.S. It was due to expire in December. 

The CR passed the House 231-192, with the majority of Republicans voting against it for reasons that had nothing to do with civil liberties. Given the close nature of the vote and the must pass nature of the funding resolution, progressive Patriot Act opponents, whose votes were necessary for its passage, could have conceivably exerted pressure on the House leadership, forcing a sunset of 215, or deep reforms. Instead, they gave in. On the bright side, activists now have three months to hold every member of Congress’ feet to the fire to insure a repeal of Section 215.

Earlier this fall, the Democratic Progressive Caucus and Republican Freedom Caucus sent a letter to the Chairs Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, which hold jurisdiction over the Patriot Act. The letter proclaimed the legislators’ belief that the Patriot Act should sunset on Dec 15 if certain reforms were not adopted. They recognized that the law has facilitated unconstitutional mass surveillance and that the FBI had actively avoided complying with the existing law, as lax as it already is. 

Their letter said, Disclosures over the past several years make clear that existing expansive surveillance powers pose an unacceptable threat to civil rights and civil liberties.” 

Still, when House leadership included the Patriot Act extension in the “must pass” spending bill, the CPC caved. They had all the power in this situation to force the adoption of significant reforms. As Sam Adler-Bell noted in The New Republic, “It would only have taken a few dozen progressive defections to kill the continuing resolution, after which the leadership would have been forced to strip the Patriot Act from the bill and schedule another vote on funding the government.”  

Independent (and former Republican) Rep. Justin Amash (MI), offered an amendment removing the Patriot Act from the funding resolution. This was ruled out of order by the House Rules Committee. Norman Solomon argued, “If even 20 more House progressives had signaled a willingness to vote against the continuing resolution unless it was separated from Patriot Act reauthorization, they would have been in a strong position to demand standalone votes on each measure.”

Ultimately, only ten Democrats voted against the extension. Progressive stalwarts Ilhan Omar D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), all voted against the resolution, citing their opposition to the Patriot Act. 

Rep. Jayapal (D-WA), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and a former board member of DRAD has indicated her determination to secure serious reforms before another extension is granted. Specifically, the CPC is advocating for these improvements:

  1. Repeal the call detail records authority under Section 215 and place limits on other intelligence programs, including Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA);
  2. Impose a strict prohibition on surveillance that threatens First Amendment protected activities or discriminates on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or other protected characteristics;
  3. Prevent large-scale collection under the Patriot Act and limit the types of information that can be obtained under Patriot Act authorities;
  4. Impose strict limits on querying, using, retaining, and sharing of information for criminal and other unrelated purposes and ensure that the government provides notice to individuals when information obtained or derived from these authorities is used against
  5. Establish sufficient transparency for the public to measure whether reforms are working and how intelligence authorities are being used; and
  6. Adopt structural reforms to the FISA court to ensure that civil liberties and privacy arguments are appropriately considered.