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Senators terrified with abuse of Patriot Act’s secret laws

Published time: March 16, 2012 16:45
Edited time: March 17, 2012 02:00
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (AFP Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (AFP Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

Horrified with the way the US government uses the Patriot Act against its own people, two senators have been trying to make these practices public for years. Tired of being ignored, they're now taking their fight against secret programs to public.

Two US senators wrote the attorney general of the United States this week, urging the federal government to give the American public evidence explaining how the Patriot Act has been interpreted since signed into law in 2001.

In a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder sent Thursday, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) plead with the government to provide the American people with the facts behind what the Patriot Act can let America’s top investigators do. The lawmakers, who have rallied for disclosure of these details for more than two years, say citizens would be “stunned” to learn what the government believes it can get away with under the law.

The controversial USA Patriot Act was hastily signed into legislation after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks under the guise of a being a necessity for preventing future terrorist efforts, but for over a decade since the law has become notorious for its ability to stick federal eyes into seemingly every aspect of the American public in the name of counterterrorism. Although the government has gone on the record to downplay the constitutionally-damning powers they are granted under the law, Senators Wyden and Udall say it is time that the feds fulfill the demands of millions of concerned Americans and discuss in detail what they can do under the act — and what they’ve already done.

Wydell and Udall are specifically calling on Holder to provide information about how the government has interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which grants government officials with certain clearance to obtain “tangible things” deemed “relevant” to issues of terrorism. While that much is clear, write the senators, how the government goes about abiding by it “has been the subject of secret legal interpretations,” which they add “are contained in classified opinions” that are not made available to much of Congress, let alone members of the general public.

“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215,” add the senators. “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when they public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”

The Justice Department has in their own defense said that disclosing details on certain interpretations could be detrimental to national security, an issue to which the senators acknowledge. “We believe that is entirely legitimate for government agencies to keep certain information secret,” write the lawmakers.The argument being made by Wyden and Udall, however, is that the government is letting itself perceive the law in a way which not only are Americans completely oblivious to, but Americans are also under the false impression that matters are marvelously different.

“In a democratic society — in which the government derives its powers from the consent of the people — citizens rightly expect that their government will not arbitrarily keep information from them,” reads the letter to Holder. “Americans expect their government to operate within the boundaries of publically-understood law, and as voters they have a need and a right to know how the law is being interpreted, so that they can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf.”

“Americans know that the government will sometimes conduct secret operations, but they don’t think that government officials should be writing secret laws,” write the senators.

Wydell and Udall add that this is not something that they’ve only recently been pressing for. They claim to have gone after the president himself to declassify the interpretations of the Patriot Act so that Congress can consider discussions on Capitol Hill, but say that despite repeated attempts to appeal to Holder and others in the past, no leeway whatsoever has been accomplished. Now both the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times are trying to get the truth through filing Freedom of Information Act requests, but the feds are working overtime to make sure that the attempts at finding the facts are ignored. The senators say they had a glimmer of hope in August 2009 when the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced that they would begin a new processes for reviewing and releasing details of decisions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the court that interprets the Patriot Act — but “two and a half years later, however, this ‘process’ had produced literally zero results.”