Key components in the USA Patriot Act are set to expire at the end of the year, but President Barack Obama is seeking to extend them, reversing his stark opposition in the past to the same provisions.
“The president’s reversal on Patriot Act reform is a major travesty,” said Michelle Richardson, Legislative Counsel for the leading civil rights group ACLU, in an interview with Raw Story. “There have been many, many abuses of power in the last four years.”
These three main aspects in question allow the government to acquire private information about civilians through warrantless wiretapping of phone calls and emails, as well as seizure of records from credit reporting companies, banks, internet service providers and libraries. Another component includes the loosening of conditions under which an individual can be accused of providing “material support” to terrorists.
In 2005, then-Senator Obama pledged to filibuster a Bush-sponsored bill that included several of these exact components, calling it “just plain wrong” in a Senate speech.
“Government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document — through library books they’ve read and phone calls they’ve made,” he declared, adding: “We don’t have to settle for a Patriot Act that sacrifices our liberties or our safety — we can have one that secures both.”
ABC News reports that “Four years ago, then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who taught constitutional law, voted down the same provisions along with all Senate Democrats who insisted on changes to the bill that better protected libraries, limited clandestine search warrants, roving wiretaps, and FBI gag orders.”
“This was the most opportune time for the surveillance authorities to reverse course,” Richardson told Raw Story. “If these programs continue, more abuses of power are absolutely inevitable — there’s no way around it. The level of secrecy granted by Congress is very troubling.”
Obama has championed the continuation of all three provisions until at least 2013, a wish that has been granted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and two-thirds fulfilled by the House counterpart. (The House version slaps greater oversight and restrictions on acquiring personal records of non-US citizens.) While he has always been resolutely opposed to former President George W. Bush’s vision of the Act, he has defended certain parts of it, and voted in 2006 to re-authorize an altered version.
“Overall, the Obama administration has made marginal improvements but is largely a continuation of the Bush administration with respect to civil liberties,” Richardson told Raw Story, referring to the president’s rising acquiescence to his predecessor’s approach.
The Patriot Act, initially pushed through Congress quickly after 9/11 by the Bush administration as an alleged necessity to combat future attacks, has long been fiercely criticized by the ACLU and other civil libertarians as a gross violation of privacy rights under the Constitution.
Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, a former civil rights litigator, recently wrote: “Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy — policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”
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