25 May 2011

Senator Rand Paul on the PATRIOT Act

Photo by Gage Skidmore.
From Senator Paul's Twitter page.
I tend to bust Senator Rand Paul's chops on this blog, but one of my guiding adages holds that even a broken clock is right twice a day.  That in mind, I wanted to make a specific effort to praise his efforts to combat the PATRIOT Act adopted in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  I despise the everything about the act, down to its name, and I take particular issue with the ALL CAPS spelling.  I could have sworn the thing had been allowed to expire already, but apparently only particular components were affected by that deadline.  The act proper is poised to be renewed, and Senator Paul, unable to rally sufficient support to prevent that renewal, has proposed eight amendments to curb the most egregious and intrusive elements.  Here are the amendments (taken directly from Senator Paul's official website):

  • Burden-Shifting Suspicious Activity Report Amendment: Requires law enforcement to initiate requests for suspicious activity reports (SARs). Shifts the burden for generating suspicious activity reports to law enforcement, requiring FBI/other law enforcement to initiate requests for SARs, rather than requiring financial institutions to automatically generate these reports.
    • Supported by Kentucky Bankers Association and National Association of Federal Credit Unions
  • National Security Letters Issued by Judges: States that no officer or employee of the United States may issue a National Security Letter (NSL) unless a FISA court judge finds that probable cause exists to issue the NSL. Brings NSLs into compliance with plain text of Fourth Amendment.
  • Firearm Records Amendment: Clarifies that the authority to obtain info under the USA PATRIOT Act does not include authority to obtain certain firearm records. Supported by Gun Owners of America.
  • Roving Wiretaps Amendment: This amendment eliminates the possibility of "John Doe" roving wiretaps that identify neither the person nor the phone to be wiretapped. Also requires 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.
  • Leahy/Paul Amendment: This amendment consists of the substance of Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) PATRIOT Act reform bill (S. 193) as reported from the Judiciary Committee. The vote was 10-7 (those voting in favor included Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah]).
    • Sen. Paul is co-sponsoring Sen. Leahy's amendment.
  • Section 215/Access to Business Records: Restores the pre-PATRIOT Act standard for obtaining records.
    • Supported by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).
  • "Good Faith Standard" Suspicious Activity Report Amendment: This amendment would implement a reform that was previously proposed by the Financial Services Roundtable. This reform will help reduce the high number of "defensive filings" submitted by financial institutions due to their fear of being penalized for failure to file a suspicious activity report (SAR). It codifies a "good faith standard" to ensure that if a financial institution has established a SAR decision-making process, has followed existing policies, procedures, and processes, and determines not to file a SAR, the bank or credit union would not be penalized for its failure to file the SAR unless the failure was accompanied by evidence of bad faith.
    • Supported by Kentucky Bankers Association and National Association of Federal Credit Unions
  • Judicial Review of Suspicious Activity Reports: States that the Secretary of the Treasury may not require any financial institution to submit a suspicious activity report unless an appropriate district court of the United States issues an order finding that probable cause exists to obtain the information.
  • Minimization/Destruction of NSL and Section 215 Business Records Info: Directs the Attorney General to establish minimization and destruction procedures governing the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of private information by the FBI. The purpose is to ensure that private information obtained outside the scope of an NSL or Section 215 order is appropriately disposed of or destroyed.
His expansive statement made on the floor of the United States Senate has tinges of tin foil hat paranoia, but the lion's share of it speaks directly to the core philosophy that I and many Americans have espoused since long before Osama bin Laden became a household name. The microcosm of Senator Paul's argument can be read in the following excerpt:

Now, some have said, well, if you have nothing to hide, why do you care?
Well, the thing is that it will not always be angels that are in charge of government. You have rules because you want to prevent the day that may occur when you get someone who takes over your government through elected office or otherwise who really is intent on using the tools of government to pry into your affairs, to snoop on what you're doing, to punish you for your political or religious beliefs.
That's why we don't ever want to let the law become so expansive. But the thing is you have to realize that you can still get terrorists. We get rapists and murderers every day by calling a judge. That's what I'm asking for.
I said the same thing a decade ago when the PATRIOT Act was first discussed. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft should have denounced the act and reassured us that it was an unnecessary over-reaction, but he didn't. It's rare that I enthusiastically endorse a position taken by Senator Paul, but this is one instance where I do not hesitate. I would urge anyone reading this to contact their senator and chastise them for not supporting Senator Paul's amendments.

Incidentally, Senator Paul is now on Twitter and can be followed or mentioned here.