The Obama administration supports extending a controversial provision of the Patriot Act that allows investigators to demand that businesses turn over sensitive financial records, without specifying the investigation’s target or why the files are needed.
A company receiving a letter demanding the records is subject to a permanent gag order, prohibited from ever disclosing that the government asked for the records. The law doesn’t even specify whether the company can call a lawyer or appeal to a judge, although the feds claim they always allow a company to obtain legal counsel.
The business records provision was extended under the Bush administration, which had planned to make it permanent. A powerful coalition of “strange bedfellows”—that included the ACLUE, The US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Association of Manufacturers—semi-successfully lobbied. They didn’t kill it but they kept it from becoming permanent.
Businesses and civil rights advocates feared that this kind of unchecked government power was dangerous. Over 200 business records letters have been issued by the government under the Patriot Act. Under another provision of the law—in which business records can be demanded without a court order for national security reasons—federal officials have issued tens of thousands of letters.
As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to re-examine the law. Many hoped he would refuse to extend the business records provisions. But in a letter to lawmakers, Justice Department officials said the administration supports extending the provision, along with two other controversial powers of the government—the ability to monitor “lone wolf” suspected terrorists with no connection to known terrorist groups and the “roving wire tap” provision that allows the government to listen in on phone lines even if suspects change phones or phone numbers.
From the Associated Press:
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the administration is willing to consider stronger civil rights protections in the new law “provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important (provisions).”
Leahy responded with a statement saying it is important for the administration and Congress to “work together to ensure that we protect both our national security and our civil liberties.”
The committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the Patriot Act.