Senate blocks debate over Patriot Act re-authorization

Colorado U.S. Senator Mark Udall joined with a small bipartisan band of colleagues to slow the move on Capitol Hill to quickly reauthorize the Patriot Act and extend its most controversial provisions for another four years. That effort was derailed Tuesday when Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a vote to “table” or stop work on the act. He got his wish. The Senate voted to block debate 74 to 13 votes.

“I resent this rush to rubber-stamp laws that endanger liberties we hold so dear,” Udall said in a conference call with reporters earlier Tuesday, noting that he has sought and failed to win the opportunity to reform the act’s most controversial provisions for years. “They have always pressed for short-term extensions without debate. Now we were notified just a few days ago that we would be asked to pass a four-year extension. We are ensuring Americans will live with the status quo for four more years.

“Bottom line is that the Patriot Act has kept us safe for ten years but Coloradans have asked me to work to protect their liberties and freedoms and I won’t vote for it again,” he said.

A vote to extend all provisions of the act without amendments will likely come Thursday, according to Hill staffers.

In his remarks to reporters and later on the Senate floor, Udall wanted to be clear that, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, he supports the act generally but also believes that, after ten years, the time has come to more fully debate its strengths and weaknesses. He had proposed amendments to reform three provisions he believes unnecessarily threaten individual freedoms and mock constitutional transparency requirements.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden joined Udall on the press call. He said both men stand unwaveringly in support of the need to protect intelligence gathering sources and methods.

“That’s different,” he said. “As members of the Intelligence Committee, we know these are dangerous times. Given that, we want ironclad protections for intelligence gathering sources and methods. It’s the laws and how the government is interpreting the laws that have to be open. There can be no secret laws,” he said.

Wyden co-sponsored three Udall amendments and introduced his own amendment that would have required the executive branch to disclose how it was interpreting the Patriot Act. He said the American people were shocked to learn that the Bush Administration had secretly reinterpreted wiretapping laws and had been acting on the new interpretation for years.

Wyden said that members of the Intelligence Committee are allowed to attend briefings on how the administration is taking up the Patriot Act, but he said that many lawmakers don’t have staffers cleared to attend the briefings. As a result, lawmakers don’t know what privacies the government might be violating. Worse, even lawmakers who have knowledge about what the government is doing under the Patriot Act can’t share that knowledge on the record in the Senate.

“We can’t legally discuss the act on the floor. I don’t think Americans believe that’s how this should work,” said Wyden. “They understand there should be secret missions, but that’s very different than keeping these legal interpretations of the law secret.

“Secret law violates the trust Americans put in government and undermines trust in government institutions.”

Udall said the status quo is ripe for abuse. He said law enforcement has the power under the act to trammel the privacy rights of individuals but that also, as it is, the status quo prevents Congress from fulfilling its Constitutional duty to provide oversight.

Udall aimed to introduce three amendments:

Amendment 331 would require the FBI to show a nexus to terrorism when seeking a court order requesting access to 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.

Amendment 332 would eliminate the ability of the government to conduct “roving wiretaps” without identifying the person or the phone to be wiretapped. The amendment would also require government agents to ascertain 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. This would protect innocent Americans from unnecessary surveillance.

Amendment 330 would require Congress to be notified before the government begins surveillance of a so-called “lone wolf” – an individual who is not connected to a terrorist group or a foreign government. Currently, such surveillance is allowed without notice.

Udall and Wyden were joined in their efforts by a small bipartisan group that included Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon; Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana; Mark Begich of Alaska; Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ron Paul of Kentucky.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid twice this week opposed moves to consider amendments. With Colorado’s Michael Bennet presiding over the Senate chamber Tuesday night, Reid again moved to shut down debate. He said he understood the sincerity of calls to review the controversial provisions of the act. He told freshman Senator Paul that, with time, he would learn that it often takes a long while to get what you want done in the Senate.

Congressional leaders earlier this week sounded warnings about the threat to national security a prolonged debate over the bill could pose if provisions of the bill were allowed to expire.

Udall said the three provisions scheduled to expire could be extended short-term while they’re being debated.

He said this unacceptable turn of events was the usual manner in which the Patriot Act has been dealt with in DC, where a large bipartisan majority working at a frenzied pace stifles discussion and reform.

“We have had this on our to-do list for months,” he said.

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