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Congress passes Patriot Act extension despite privacy objections

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

With only minutes to go before key surveillance provisions expired, President Obama late on May 26 signed a four year extension of the Patriot Act surveillance laws that allow detailed records searches and roving wiretaps.

After being blocked for days by a few key Senators over privacy concerns, the measure was approved late in the evening on May 26 and signed via autopen by president Obama who is travelling in Europe. The Senate voted 72-23 to approve the rules, while the House voted 250-153 for approval.  

The measure extends the life of roving wiretaps  -  which are tied to a person, not a communications device or telephone line as with typical wiretaps  -   and of business record searches and surveillance of suspected terrorists. The provisions are subject to review every four years because of privacy concerns.

Those privacy concerns delayed Congressional action on the measure, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Mark Udall (R-CO) and a few others were skeptical of the act’s impact on privacy rights.

In a statement on his web site on May 26, Udal said “he stood up for Coloradans’ constitutionally protected rights” in opposing the extension.

Although, Udall, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said he supported the intent of the measure, he said he believed the wiretap and surveillance provisions “be amended so they can’t be abused by the executive branch.” Udall was ultimately dissatisfied and voted against the measure.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also argued in the days leading up to the bill’s passage for a more robust debate on privacy issues. He said he had argued with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) over allowing debate on amendments to the act.

“Instead of honoring statements he made in February regarding allowing amendments and debate on the bill, Sen. Reid went through procedural hoops to go back on his word,” said Paul in a statement. “By hurriedly attaching the extensions to the privileged small business bill as an amendment, Sen. Reid denied the Senate the opportunity to debate the constitutionality of its provisions,” Sen. Paul said.

Udall offered amendments to the three provisions that he hoped would allay privacy concerns. "I can't support the extension of the provisions we are considering today without amendments to ensure there is a check on executive branch authority,” he said.

The first amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR)  would have required the Federal Bureau of Investigation to show a definite link to terrorism when it sought a court order requesting access to personal business records. “This is currently not a requirement, meaning the government may demand access to business records ranging from a cell phone company's phone records to an individual's library history,” said Udall.

Another amendment introduced by Sens. Udall, Paul and Wyden would have elminated the government’s use of roving wiretaps without identifying the person or the phone to be wiretapped. The amendment would have also required government agents to determine the presence of the target of a roving wiretap before beginning surveillance of a particular phone or email, using the same standard that is already required for criminal roving taps.

An amendment on Lone Wolf provisions by Udall would have required Congress to be notified before the government began surveillance of individuals not connected to a terrorist group or a foreign government.


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