You think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden says it’s worse than you know.
Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.
“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”
What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.
“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”
That’s why Wyden and his colleague Sen. Mark Udall offered an amendment on Tuesday to the Patriot Act reauthorization.
The amendment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, blasts the administration for “secretly reinterpret[ing] public laws and statutes.” It would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” And, intriguingly, it refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.
Wyden says he “can’t answer” any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information — something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.
“I draw a sharp line between the secret interpretation of the law, which I believe is a growing problem, and protecting operations and methods in the intelligence area, which have to be protected,” he says.
Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.
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