Tuesday, May 15, 2007

PATRIOT Act - the view from 5 years later

Interesting article on some of the failures of the Patriot Act, which I've criticized from day one. I know 911 was a terrible event, and I was all for exacting retribution, but it was painfully obvious that the PATRIOT Act was a naked power grab by the government. Anyway, there were some who criticized it initially and discussed potential abuses. Here is an excerpt from a longer article assessing some of the initial criticisms (they were right).
In March 2007, FBI Inspector General Glenn Fine released a report that undermined that argument. It turned out the bureau had underreported the number of requests for National Security Letters, had issued letters before exhausting other options, and had issued them to Americans who were not the targets of ongoing investigations. In short, the FBI had abused its new powers.

“That vindicated my concerns over that provision of the PATRIOT Act,” says Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who had joined Sununu and most Democrats in the 2005 filibuster. “Not because I have reason to believe that FBI agents were acting with ill intent, but it does show that we shouldn’t create shortcuts when it comes to civil rights. Mistakes will, and did, happen.”

That scandal was soon chased from the headlines by something even more incendiary: The White House had fired eight competent U.S. attorneys for, among other things, not working hard enough to prosecute Democrats. Washington State’s John McKay hadn’t dug into claims of Democratic voter fraud in a governor’s race; New Mexico’s David Iglesias, the model for Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men, wasn’t willing to rush an indictment against a Democratic state senator before an election. And the power that let the president replace them with cronies was enshrined in the PATRIOT Act.

Presidents had always set up a revolving door for the U.S. attorneys at the starts of their terms, and they had the right to shuffle them out and nominate new blood at any time. But PATRIOT effectively eliminated Congress’ role in approving those replacements, by removing restrictions on the length of service for interim U.S. attorneys and allowed them to serve indefinitely without confirmation by the Senate. As first liberals, then conservatives started calling for the attorney general to fall on his sword, the Senate voted to strip the president of that power.

It took its time, but the political class has finally lost confidence in its belief that the government had done the right things to secure America after 9/11. As scandal piled on top of scandal, it became harder, then impossible, to deny that the powers granted to the executive could be abused by some corrupt actors or by agencies enamored of their own secrecy.

This impacts the way Washingtonians play out the decade’s big hypothetical scenario: What happens if we get hit again? How will politics change after another 9/11? The thinking had been that politics would pivot right back to the frenzied “whatever my government wants” attitude of 2001. But the validation of civil libertarians’ fears has changed all that.

“This is a case where I can say ‘I was right all along,’ ” says Sununu. “But I am not happy about it.”

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