No compromise on the Patriot Act

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Remember, back in April, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he was open to changing the Patriot Act? Well, a change has been proposed, but it’s to expand the already sweeping power afforded the FBI. The Justice Department has been in negotiations with the Senate Intelligence Committee to push through a bill to expand the FBI’s search and surveillance powers via something called “administrative subpoenas.” Phillip Carter translates for us lay-folk: “These are little more than formal letters from the FBI, which carry the weight of the law, and allow the FBI to get documents without a judge approving a search warrant or judicial subpoena. They are, in effect, a short-circuit of the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirements for searches and seizures”

Essentially, the FBI is pushing to be able to authorize themselves, without a judge’s sign-off, to subpoena medical records, tax records, and any other material that it deemed relevant to its intelligence investigation. It would therefore remove safeguards currently in place. According to one Democratic Congressional official, “This all comes down to not wanting an FBI agent to have to go to a prosecutor and then the court to get formal approval.”

It gets worse: the current law “would be amended to specify that material must be ‘relevant’ to a foreign intelligence investigation.” Don’t let the seemingly positive word “relevant” fool you. As Carter writes,

Showing that something is relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation is actually a significantly lower standard that what currently exists in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which states that…warrants shall only be issued where ‘a significant purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information’ This…change…will allow DoJ to use FISA powers in any case that is merely relevant to a foreign intelligence matter, broadly defined. In theory, DoJ can define a wide band of actors as national security threats—terrorist, terrorist sympathizers, material supporters, narco-traffickers…”

Or the ACLU. The ACLU recently issued a statement saying that, “the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups.” The statement was based on information from FOIA documents that the ACLU has obtained. But it doesn’t look like the ACLU, or, indeed, anyone outside the Senate Intelligence Committee will have any say in the matter. The Committee is scheduled to have a closed meeting on Thursday “to review classified information about how the Patriot Act has been used.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest