Feingold book details his lone ‘no’ vote on Patriot Act

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shocked and scarred the country. A mere 45 days after the attacks, President George W. Bush signed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism — better known by its acronym, the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

On Oct. 25, 2001, the U.S. Senate had passed the measure by a whopping vote of 98-1. The lone voice of dissent was Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. In his new book, While America Sleeps (Crown Publishers, 2012), Feingold gives his account of the Patriot Act passage and why he opposed it.

“This was legislation on the fly, unlike anything I had ever seen in a career of some eighteen years of legislation,” he writes, referring to the law as a “piece of legislative greased lighting.”

Feingold concedes that much of the Patriot Act — the law covered more than 340 pages and amended numerous federal laws — was needed to update existing law in light of new technology, new forms of terrorist attacks and improved resources. He calls much of the material in the measure “practical and measured responses to the reality of international terrorist threats.”

However, Feingold says he voted against the measure because the Patriot Act included some provisions that he felt trampled on constitutional rights, particularly the First Amendment right of free speech and the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

He highlights three provisions — Sections 213, 215 and 505. Section 213 allowed the expansion of law enforcement to engage in sneak-and-peak searches, raising Fourth Amendment questions; 215 and 505 triggered First Amendment concerns, in Feingold’s view.

Section 215, also known as the “business records” provision, enabled government officials to obtain business records of individuals, including their public library records. Another provision even gagged the individual receiving the request, preventing him or her from saying anything about the request.

“One can obviously see why the librarians of the nation were in an uproar soon after the bill was passed,” Feingold writes.

He had similar concerns about Section 505, which expanded the FBI’s authority to send out National Security Letters demanding customer records from businesses if an agent believed that such information was “relevant to an authorized investigation.” Like Section 215, it contained a gag-order provision.

Feingold explains the amendments he offered that he thought were more measured responses to the terror threat — to no avail. He still maintains that the legislative approach that led to the Patriot Act did not include necessary “oversight.”

Feingold’s book, subtitled “A Wake-Up Call for the Post-9/11 Era,” also covers related topics. Whatever one’s position on the balance between security and liberty, the book is an interesting read.

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