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FBI Director Pushes to Renew PATRIOT Act Surveillance Powers

Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that key provisions set to expire this year are 'exceptionally helpful.'
 
 
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Earlier this month, the ACLU released a report taking stock of the USA PATRIOT Act, almost eight years after its passage. The study, titled "Reclaiming Patriotism," identifies key sections of the law that codified the most radical abuses of power under the Bush administration, interweaving stories of people who were unlawfully spied on, coerced, and intimidated through the PATRIOT Act's sweeping powers.

"More than seven years after its implementation, there is little evidence to demonstrate that the Patriot Act has made America more secure from terrorists," the report's authors write. "But there are many unfortunate examples that the government abused these authorities in ways that both violated the rights of innocent people and squandered precious security resources."

The ACLU report highlights three specific provisions of the PATRIOT Act that have led to unprecedented surveillance against Americans:

Section 215 -- which drastically broadens the kinds of information the government can demand under FISA to "any tangible thing" (while lowering the burden of proof to obtain an order). As the Washington Post explains, this measure "allows investigators probing terrorism to seek a suspect's records from third parties such as financial services and travel and telephone companies without notifying the suspect. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the provision, saying it violates the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens."

Section 206 -- which grants the authority to use secret "roving wiretaps." "In the past, authorities had to seek court approval for each electronic device carried by a suspect, from a cellphone and a BlackBerry to a home computer," writes the Post, "But under the provision, one warrant can cover all of those machines." "Unlike roving wiretaps authorized for criminal investigations," the ACLU explains, "section 206 does not require the order to identify either the communications device to be tapped nor the individual against whom the surveillance is directed, which is what gives section 206 the Kafkaesque moniker, the "John Doe roving wiretap provision."

Section 6001 -- or the "lone wolf" provision, which allows for secret FISA surveillance orders against people who have no connections to a terror group or foreign nation. "The government justified this provision by imagining a hypothetical "lone wolf," an international terrorist operating independently of any terrorist organization," explains the ACLU, "but there is little evidence to suggest this imaginary construct had any basis in reality."

All three provisions are set to expire on December 31st.

Yesterday, however, during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller made it clear that he considers these PATRIOT Act provisions valuable tools in intelligence gathering and will pressure Congress to keep them past their expiration date.

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights and Liberties and War on Iraq Special Coverage.