Senator Suggests Government is Snooping on “Law-Abiding Americans”

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Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado failed Thursday in their effort to force the Obama administration to produce internal Justice Department interpretations of what the government is allowed to do under the Patriot Act. Congress reauthorized the law on Thursday but did not include an amendment sponsored by the two senators that would require the Justice Department to show its hand.

On the Senate floor, Udall and Wyden expressed concern, in part, about section 215 of the law. That section gives the government broad authority to nab “any tangible thing (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)” about Americans during investigations. The law says the government can seize that kind of information, however, only during an “investigation to protect against international terrorism.”

Udall, a member of the Intelligence Committee along with Wyden, alleged that the Obama administration was abusing that authority.

“Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the so-called ‘business records’ provision, currently allows records to be collected on law-abiding Americans, without any connection to terrorism or espionage,” he said. “If we cannot even limit investigations to terrorism or other nefarious activities, where do they end?” Udall said. “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law was being carried out.”

Wyden said the Justice Department had penned a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act that dramatically broadened the spying authority in section 215. “Government officials must not be allowed to fall into the trap of secretly reinterpreting the law in a way that creates a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the government secretly claims it says.”

Michelle Richardson, legislative council at the ACLU, says her organization is not clear on whether Wyden and Udall are objecting to a new Justice Department opinion drafted during the Obama administration or an opinion adopted from the Bush era. Public statements from FBI officials, however, suggest the FBI is using the law to cast a wide net. “The way the FBI has long talked about 215 is that they fully intend to collect innocent information,” she said. “They say, ‘We don’t know who the terrorists are before we get the information.’”