Deep within the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, originally passed in 2001, there are many surveillance tactics enacted through sunset provisions, which are parts of laws that have an expiration date unless legislative action extends them. While the sunset provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire on February 28th, 2011, the government will likely extend these provisions. On the third day of the 112th Congress, Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI) introduced House Resolution 67. This bill would extend the sunset provisions of the PATRIOT Act until February 29th, 2012.
The sunset provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) are contained within Section 200 of the PATRIOT Act and include the fifteen following provisions: Sections 201, 202, 203 (except parts A & C), 204, 206, 207, 209, 212, 214, 215, 217, 218, 220, 223, and 225. All of the unlisted sections between these numbers are already permanent, except for 224, which is only the date of expiration for the sunsets. You can view each of these provisions in the 2001 version of the PATRIOT Act [.pdf], but the more contentious sunset provisions include:
- Section 206: roving wire taps for individuals who are not involved in any criminal matter. A court must approve such an order, but it is a special federal court originally created in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that is not public. Section 208 of the PATRIOT Act enlarged this court from seven to eleven judges.
- Section 214: access to pen register devices and trap and trace devices for individuals who have shown no connection with a terrorist organization, but have connected to a device (like websites or social networks) of an entity currently under investigation, so long as the activities are not solely based on the First Amendment. Basically, these devices have the ability to record all communication signals (dialing, routing, addressing, and the contents) sent over electronic devices. Pen register devices refer to incoming data, while trap and trace devices refer to outgoing data.
- Section 215: authority to obtain any records (books, documents, papers, or other items with record-keeping ability) for individuals meeting the same standard in Section 214. Further, the individuals are not allowed to be told about any seizure of records, as specified in 215 (d).
- Section 220: there are no geographic limitations for any of the sunset provisions of the PATRIOT Act, as well as the other already permanent surveillance provisions.
These above provisions illustrate why many accuse the PATRIOT Act of infringement of Americans’ civil liberties. Merely visiting a website, mentioning a matter under investigation on social networks, or checking out a controversial book from a library is enough to not only invade the privacy of law-abiding Americans, but to also do so without any of them ever knowing.
Despite these alarming invasions of privacy, the government has extended the sunset provisions of the PATRIOT Act on three previous occasions. The first renewal occurred in the USA PATRIOT Act Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 [.pdf], which extended the sunset provisions until December 31st, 2009. However, this act did not renew all of the sunset provisions, but instead made a majority of them permanent. The only sunset provisions this act did not permanently enforce are Sections 206 and 215.
The second renewal of the remaining sunset provisions occurred in late 2009 and was a short extension until February 28th, 2010. The third extension came in an amendment of the Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act of 2009 [.pdf], which President Obama quietly signed the day before the sunsets were set to expire on February 28th, 2010. This act extended the sunsets until the current expiration date of February 28th, 2011. What’s more, the Senate did not even debate the bill and passed it on a voice vote. The House passed the bill after a vote of 315 to 97, with 87 of the nays being Democrats and the remaining 10 being Republicans.
With past extensions gaining widespread support from both parties in Congress, as well as the President, the recent introduction of HR 67 will likely pass with ease. As a result, another year of secretive investigations of law-abiding Americans will continue. Perhaps those who read this article will grasp the nature of these invasions of privacy and will spread the word to not only their friends, but also to their elected officials.