Why should this matter to you?
Contrary to the misleading reassurances of PATRIOT Act apologists, some provisions of the legislation aren't merely likely to be abused by law enforcement in the future -- they've already led to civil liberties violations, many of them documented circa 2009 by the Justice Department. Through National Security Letters, for example, law enforcement is permitted to obtain sensitive information from the banks, phone companies and Internet service providers of any American citizen. The FBI doesn't need a warrant to request this private data, and the target of the snooping needn't even be suspected of any connection with terrorism! More than 6,000 Americans were spied on in this manner during 2009 (the most recent year data is available), and the federal government has itself documented flagrant FBI abuses. All that's missing is a desire to fix the problem. There are plenty of other objectionable PATRIOT ACT sections too: the "lone wolf" provision, roving wiretaps, Section 215 notices. All are worthy of study, especially since now the American people won't learn more about them through a Congressional debate.
President Obama's support for this latest re-authorization matters because it bears on a central promise of his candidacy. During Election 2008, he made it seem as though a vote for him would signify and end to the Bush Administration's excesses in the war on terrorism: its tendency to needlessly sacrifice civil liberties even when less intrusive measures were sufficient, its disdain for checks and balances on executive authority, its habit of using scare tactics to insist that national security legislation be passed quickly and without a debate. Hope. Change. Those were the slogans. They weren't about getting Osama bin Laden, nice as that was.
"I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never -- ever -- turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake," President Obama said as late as May 2009. "I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset -- in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval." In the same speech, he added that "I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable. I will deal
with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government. I will
tell the American people what I know and don't know, and when I release
something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why." That promise has been broken as surely as the implicit and explicit pledges to close Guantanamo Bay, to treat detainees well, to refrain from wars of choice without Congressional authorization, and to stop abusing the states secret privilege.