Updated First, the good news. Revisions to the so-called "Patriot" Act now circulating on Capitol Hill will give Congress some limited oversight on the use of national security letters, by requiring the FBI to report periodically on their use.
Now the bad news. The gag rules have been enhanced on these letters, which allow surveillance without a judge's approval or even a reasonable suspicion that the target is a criminal. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, their use has gone up a hundredfold since "Patriot," with something like 30,000 per year now being sent. They are, essentially, fishing licenses that the FBI gets to issue to itself, without judicial oversight. Only now there will be real penalties for resisting them, and for disclosing their receipt - in perpetuity. And this power might become permanent, to boot.
Other offensive provisions, especially related to electronic eavesdropping and data mining on a mass scale, originally scheduled to sunset at the end of this year, will either become permanent, or be extended for seven years. But why the hurry to ram all of this through, and even to worsen it? Why not authorize the Act for two years at a time, and let it evolve in step with public opinion?
The reason why it has to be authorized forever (or for a very long time) is because public opposition has been growing steadily. The more the public learns about it, the less they like it. Periodic re-authorizations would eventually result in the Act's being watered down over time, and this democratic process is something that the Administration is dead set against. So it's now or never, some legislators feel.
A further reason is very real Republican fear of losing their grip on Congress in next year's mid-term elections, and a natural desire to win points with the expedient of some cheap, tough-on-terror bluster. And Democrats will fall into lock step as well, because they're even more frightened of appearing soft on terrorism, especially now, when the Republican administration's blunders and scandals have weakened the party enough for Democrats to have a real shot at Congress. (Although it is not for the Democrats to win, but for the Republicans to lose, which they appear to be doing with steady determination.)
And so it appears all but certain that the country will be stuck with this most un-American act for a very long time, because most members on both sides of the aisle are too soft to risk looking soft.
Nevertheless, a handful of Republican and Democrat Senators are threatening to block the compromise measure, claiming that it has done away with too many of the checks against abuse that the Senate version had contained. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, six Senators insisted that Congress must make "reasonable changes to the original law to protect innocent people from unnecessasry and intrusive government surveillance." Obviously, they believe that the original Senate version does this adequately.
The House version was especially McCarthyist, but it was hoped that blending the two in conference committee would result in a kinder, gentler Pat Act. But the committee pretty much replaced the Senate language with the House language, and ended with a bill that is, as noted above, even more Fascist than the original. (Why Republicans should be so eager to give the government this sort of investigative authority when Democrats seem poised to control the House, Senate, and federal bureaucracy in 2008, we can't imagine. Bush and Cheney off the leash have been disastrous enough; the last thing I'd want to see is President Hillary Clinton and Vice President Janet Reno with that kind of power.)
While it's difficult to picture six Senators obstructing the bill, it is possible, if the mainstream media latch on to their message, that momentum could build for a bit of a re-think, and some serious debate might just break out on the floor of the House and Senate.
The three obstructionist Republicans are Larry Craig (Idaho), John Sununu (New Hampshire), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); the three Democrats are Richard Durbin (Illinois), Russell Feingold (Wisconsin), and Ken Salazar (Colorado). ®