May 25, 2011
You think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden says it’s worse than you know.
Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.
“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”
What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.
“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”
That’s why Wyden and his colleague Sen. Mark Udall offered an amendment on Tuesday to the Patriot Act reauthorization.
The amendment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, blasts the administration for “secretly reinterpret[ing] public laws and statutes.” It would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” And, intriguingly, it refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.
Wyden says he “can’t answer” any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information — something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.
“I draw a sharp line between the secret interpretation of the law, which I believe is a growing problem, and protecting operations and methods in the intelligence area, which have to be protected,” he says.
Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.
“The FISA Court is a pretty permissive body, so that suggests something novel or particularly aggressive, not just in volume, but in the nature of the request,” says Michelle Richardson, the ACLU’s resident Patriot Act lobbyist. “No one has tipped their hand on this in the slightest. But we’ve come to the conclusion that this is some kind of bulk collection. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if it’s some kind of internet or communication-records dragnet.” (Full disclosure: My fiancée works for the ACLU.)
The FBI deferred comment on any secret interpretation of the Patriot Act to the Justice Department. The Justice Department said it wouldn’t have any comment beyond a bit of March congressional testimony from its top national security official, Todd Hinnen, who presented the type of material collected as far more individualized and specific: “driver’s license records, hotel records, car-rental records, apartment-leasing records, credit card records, and the like.”
But that’s not what Udall sees. He warned in a Tuesday statement about the government’s “unfettered” access to bulk citizen data, like “a cellphone company’s phone records.” In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, Udall urged Congress to restrict the Patriot Act’s business-records seizures to “terrorism investigations” — something the ostensible counterterrorism measure has never required in its nearly 10-year existence.
Indeed, Hinnen allowed himself an out in his March testimony, saying that the business-record provision “also” enabled “important and highly sensitive intelligence-collection operations” to take place. Wheeler speculates those operations include “using geolocation data from cellphones to collect information on the whereabouts of Americans” — something our sister blog Threat Level has reported on extensively.
It’s worth noting that Wyden is pushing a bill providing greater privacy protections for geolocation info.
For now, Wyden’s considering his options ahead of the Patriot Act vote on Thursday. He wants to compel as much disclosure as he can on the secret interpretation, arguing that a shadow broadening of the Patriot Act sets a dangerous precedent.
“I’m talking about instances where the government is relying on secret interpretations of what the law says without telling the public what those interpretations are,” Wyden says, “and the reliance on secret interpretations of the law is growing.”