[dropcap]F[/dropcap]OR years, Colorado U.S. Senator Mark Udall was a lonely critic on Capitol Hill of anti-terror surveillance laws he said were ripe for abuse. He teamed with Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden to demand lawmakers redraft the Patriot Act to bolster civil-liberty protections. Those efforts got a boost in 2011 when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul joined them, and their small movement took off when National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year leaked vast digital evidence that the abuses the senators were warning against were a reality that had to be addressed.
The three men are now leading policy reform efforts on Capitol Hill. They have put together congressional proposals and are working to build consensus. As part of that effort, they penned an op-ed that ran on Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a damning indictment of official obfuscation and a call to action.
“For years, in both statements to the public and open testimony before the House and Senate, senior government officials claimed that domestic surveillance was narrow in focus and limited in scope,” the men write. “But in June 2013, Americans learned through leaked classified documents that these claims bore little resemblance to reality…
[blockquote]Dragnet surveillance was approved by a secret court that normally hears only the government’s side of major cases. It had been debated only in a few secret congressional committee hearings, and many members of Congress were entirely unaware it. When laws like the Patriot Act were reauthorized, a vocal minority of senators and representatives — including the three of us — objected, but the secrecy surrounding these programs made it difficult to mobilize public support.
And yet, it was inevitable that mass surveillance and warrantless searches would eventually be exposed. When the plain text of the law differs so dramatically from how it is interpreted and applied, in effect creating a body of secret law, it simply isn’t sustainable. So when the programs’ existence became public last summer, huge numbers of Americans were justifiably stunned and angry at how they had been misled and by the degree to which their privacy rights had been routinely violated. Inflated claims about the program’s value have burst under public scrutiny, and there is now a groundswell of public support for reform.[/blockquote]
The senators are asking for public support for proposals that would ban bulk collection of U.S. citizen’s personal information and that would firm up laws to prevent searches without warrants. The proposals also aim to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court something more than a rubber stamp for security agencies by including on the court an advocate for constitutional rights and by requiring that the legal interpretations guiding court decisions be made public.
Udall’s battle in the War on Terror-era for greater civil liberty protections has been a long slog. He knows it could be sidetracked at any time.
In video from May, 2011, Udall is clearly swimming against the current. The clip below is from a floor speech where he and Weyden were seeking to slow renewal of the Patriot Act, which included provisions he knew were ripe for abuse based on top secret Intelligence Committee meetings he attended after the law had passed. No one on the floor of the Senate or even much in the political press wanted to hear what he and Weyden had to say. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively cut off debate. Conservative outlets determined to miss the point called Udall a “flip flopper” for having voted for the bill in the past.
“I resent this rush to rubber-stamp laws that endanger liberties we hold so dear,” Udall said in a conference call with state reporters at the time. “They have always pressed for short-term extensions [to the Patriot Act] without debate. Now we were notified just a few days ago that we would be asked to pass a four-year extension of the law. 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.