No Thanks for Patriot Act

Opinion: The Feds are lagging on e-government even as they work to extend the Patriot Act's reach.

I was thumbing through the report card on President Bushs Management Agenda initiatives last week, wondering how much an administration racked with problems here and abroad really cares about e-government activities at places such as the U.S. Agency for International Development. Probably not much.

Fact is, USAID isnt the only agency having trouble with the whole e-gov thing. Six agencies took significant steps backward in the past year when it comes to getting government entities connected to one another as well as to the citizenry. For five of the six slugabeds, I suppose a hearty "better luck next year" is in order. In addition to USAID, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, NASA and the Department of the Interior all took a turn for the worse in 2005. Oh well.

But perhaps the most disturbing lollygagger in the bunch is the Department of Justice, which had the worst performance of the lot. When it comes to Justice, the feds arent doing very well at making IT a part of the way they do business. That might not be all that frightening if the news didnt coincide with the revelation that secret negotiations in Congress have brokered a compromise to keep the thorniest information disclosure provisions of the USA Patriot Act alive beyond their expiration date.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Patriot Act II.

If the feds are demanding we hand over our rights in the name of justice and national security, shouldnt federal law enforcement officials have to prove they know how to use the technology they want to turn on us?

In case youve forgotten, the USA Patriot Act—that lasting testament to the reactionary fear and anger that consumed most of us after Sept. 11, 2001—gave law enforcement officials the power to seize confidential customer records from businesses without showing probable cause. In the technology sector, its the Patriot Acts dreaded Section 215 that raises the most hackles. That section forces ISPs and others—notably booksellers and librarians—to turn over records to the FBI even when theres no evidence that the subjects of the search are involved in a crime.

Section 215 was slated to expire at the end of this year. This so-called sunset clause was the tiny voice of reason in the din that engulfed the Capitol in the wake of 9/11. And Section 215 isnt the tech sectors only concern. Sections 209, 212 and 220 lump together several types of electronic communications—voice mail and e-mail, for instance—that had been treated as legally separate. The provisions also lower the barriers to disclosure for law enforcement seeking a peek at such data. Like 215, these provisions were due to sunset by years end.

/zimages/3/28571.gifDavid Coursey writes that the wiretap law should apply to VOIP, too. Click here to read more.

But closed-door congressional negotiations over the summer resulted in a compromise that would extend Section 215 and the wiretap provisions until 2012. Worse for us all, the negotiated settlement would extend the rest of the Patriot Act permanently. Passage by the full House and Senate seems certain to come this week, though six senators have vowed to try to block the extension.

Saying the U.S. public needs more protection from its government agents, GOP Sens. Larry Craig, John Sununu and Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, Russ Feingold and Ken Salazar all signed a letter stating: "If further changes are not made, we will work to stop this bill from becoming law."

Others have joined the chorus of Patriot Act protesters calling for the law to be retired as planned. A letter to Congress from Michael Greco, president of the American Bar Association, says the ABA is "concerned that there is inadequate Congressional oversight of government investigations undertaken pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to ensure that such investigations do not violate the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution."

One thing all agree on is that they want this issue settled before Thanksgiving, so, one way or another, were going to know soon just how much Big Brother were getting for Christmas this year. Maybe the size of the gift we give the folks in the Justice Department should be in line with their latest report card.

Executive Editor of News Chris Gonsalves can be reached at

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