On Tuesday, November 19, the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) joined 28 other organizations in signing a letter strongly condemning an extension of the PATRIOT Act that was added to a resolution to continue funding the government. Without an extension, provisions of the PATRIOT Act would soon expire, partially reverting the U.S. back to a pre-9/11 surveillance policy. The letter, organized by the Project on Government Oversight and Demand Progress, was sent to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives early Tuesday afternoon.
Jake Laperruque of the Project on Government Oversight told Bookselling This Week, “Reforming the PATRIOT Act is a critical priority, and one that Congress cannot shrug off even in challenging times.”
Despite protests from free speech and civil liberty groups, on late Tuesday afternoon, the House passed the continuing resolution (CR) in a 231 to 192 vote, thus authorizing an extension of controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act — including Section 215. Now, the CR moves on to the Senate; if passed, the CR is likely to be signed by President Trump before the Thursday deadline.
In September, Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government through Thursday, November 21. Before this Thursday, Congress must pass another CR to avoid a government shutdown. The CR, which would fund the government through December 20, 2019, includes a 90-day extension of PATRIOT Act provisions set to expire on December 15, 2019.
Provisions of the PATRIOT Act, originally passed in the wake of 9/11 with the goal of combatting terrorism, were set to expire on June 1, 2015, until the FREEDOM Act of 2015 extended the provisions through December 15, 2019.
Importantly, the FREEDOM Act limited some of the overreaching and intrusive aspects of the PATRIOT Act that led to mass surveillance of the American people. Prior to the 2015 reform, the PATRIOT Act seriously threatened the privacy of bookstore and library records under Section 215 — one of the provisions set to expire this December. However, the reform did not limit the government’s ability to conduct record searches on only suspected terrorists (as reformers advocated). The FREEDOM Act instead authorized the government to search any “relevant” records, still putting bookstore and library records at risk of government intrusion.
The opposition letter, signed by organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN America, calls Congress’ inability to enact further reforms, like ensuring First Amendment-protected activities are not targeted, a “serious failure…to protect individual rights and liberties.”
In a press statement released after the House passed the CR, Demand Progress’ Sean Vitka said in part, “Congress must reform PATRIOT Act-era surveillance authorities — not kick the can down the road.”
November 19, 2019
Dear Representatives and Senators,
The undersigned organizations write to express our strong opposition to the reauthorization of three expiring Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities currently contained in Section 1703 of the just-released Continuing Resolution, ‘‘Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2020, and Further Health Extenders Act of 2019.”
Congress has had over four years to consider the authorities scheduled to expire on December 15, 2019. One of those authorities, Section 215, permits the mass surveillance of innocent people in the United States under the “Call Detail Records” (CDR) program. Last year alone, the program only designated 11 targets but vacuumed up the call records from over 19 million phone numbers, collecting over 430 million call detail records in total. These records represent highly revealing information of our most intimate activities, and the vast majority of people affected by it are in no way suspected of wrongdoing. Serious critics of policies targeted at communities of color and immigrants should be particularly concerned about how the government could wield such dangerous tools.
Further, the National Security Agency revealed 17 months ago that this program was unlawfully acquiring massive amounts of sensitive information about our phone conversations. Despite this large-scale collection of information beyond what the law authorized, another major instance of overcollection occurred just a few months later. The CDR program has been inactive since then due to its inability to operate within the already loose bounds of the law.
The intelligence community has repeatedly failed to respond to lawmakers’ requests to provide even a single instance when the CDR program provided significant national security value, or any reason the authority for a fundamentally broken program needs to remain in place. Last month’s disclosure of long-withheld FISA Court opinions documenting serious misuse of surveillance authorities, including “fundamental misunderstandings” about how national security surveillance may lawfully be used, highlights the importance of a range of reforms. Extending these authorities for any period of time absent major reform, as the Continuing Resolution does, reflects an abandonment of Congress’s most basic responsibilities.
Inability to end the CDR authority and enact other significant reforms to PATRIOT Act authorities—such as ensuring these authorities cannot be used for warrantless location tracking, that First Amendment-protected activities are not targeted, that defendants receive notice of surveillance used against them, and that the FISA Court does not operate in secrecy—represents a serious failure of Congress to protect individual rights and liberties. The many challenging issues of the day do not diminish the importance of this issue, which impacts the privacy of millions and risks misuse of national security powers. We call on Congress to act on clear and common sense reforms now. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty.
American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE)
Arab American Institute
Association of University Presses
Campaign for Liberty
Council on Islamic American Relations
Cyber Privacy Project
Defending Rights & Dissent
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Free Press Action
Fight for the Future
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition)
National Coalition Against Censorship
Open the Government
Project On Government Oversight
Restore the Fourth
S.T.O.P. – The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project
Woodhull Freedom Foundation