The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on renewing the Patriot Act today, and virtually no one—besides Rand Paul—is talking about.
The Patriot Act renewal is a part of the USA Freedom Act. This legislation is supposed to reform and restrain the National Security Agency’s controversial metadata collection program, something the public learned about in 2013 thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden. When it passed the House in May, some civil liberties-minded Republicans and Democrats opposed the bill, saying it was watered down and did not effectively rein in the NSA. Other Republicans and Democrats opposed it, saying it would harm the NSA’s ability to track terrorists.
This week, many on the left and right, and even some civil liberties organizations, are urging the Senate to pass the bill. Similar to the House debate, some hawkish politicians and news outlets are opposed, saying it would undermine national security.
But hardly anyone is addressing the Patriot Act specifically.
This is astounding.
Today, Obama says we need the Patriot Act to fight the war on terror—which is what its defenders have said from the beginning.
But what is the Patriot Act actually used for most?
In 2011, Benjamin Wallace-Wells observed at New York Magazine that the Patriot Act had been used in 1,618 drug cases but only 15 terrorism cases.
The Washington Post’s Radley Balko noted in October how the Patriot Act has largely become just another tool in the war on drugs, “One of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act was to broaden the ‘sneak-and-peek’ power for federal law enforcement officials. The provision allows investigators to conduct searches without informing the target of the search.” Balko added, “We were assured at the time that this was an essential law enforcement tool that would be used only to protect the country from terrorism.”
Balko then cited information compiled by digital rights defenders The Electronic Frontier Foundation (who support the USA Freedom Act) on how many information requests were used under the Patriot Act and what they were for:
Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.
Balko wrote, “So since the Patriot Act passed, the number of sneak-and-peeks each year has grown from about 16 per year to over 11,000 in 2013.” He added “Meanwhile, not only have the number of sneak-and-peek investigations unrelated to terrorism increased on a massive scale, the percentage of sneak-and-peeks that have anything to do with terrorism continues to drop.”
He concluded, “In other words, sneak-and-peek is increasingly ubiquitous while the justification for granting the government this power in the first place — terrorism — is not only irrelevant to the tactic’s increasing pervasiveness, it gets more irrelevant every year.”
The U.S. needs to have the ability to gather intelligence to protect our national security. What we don’t need is federal agencies and Washington politicians using national security as an excuse to run roughshod over Americans’ most basic constitutional liberties.
The Patriot Act is a classic example of government giving itself more power by stoking fear and using war as an excuse. As James Madison wrote, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Today, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the USA Freedom Act that reauthorizes key provisions of the Patriot Act until 2017. Rand Paul is opposing that extension.
How many other senators will even focus on what was once one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed since 9/11?
Is the Patriot Act now permanent?
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.