Yesterday, after weeks of delay, Lamar Smith finally held a hearing in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on the renewal of the Patriot Act, which will come up for a vote again just a few weeks from now. The nature of the hearing, however, was swift and superficial, providing only a brief glance at a few of the serious legal issues related to the Patriot Act.
Serious hearings of this astonishingly powerful surveillance law would have taken several days, but other hearings of subcommittees of the Judiciary Committee, dealing with issues such as patent law and investment in online commerce, were deemed too important to allow for such time to be spent on scrutinizing the Patriot Act. So, only four people were called to testify before the hearing. Of those four people, only one, Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, was a critic of the Patriot Act.
The determination of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security to avoid serious consideration of the unconstitutional nature of the Patriot Act was shown by one glaring omission in the hearing: No one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation was invited to testify.
The EFF is a long-lived, reliable organization dedicated to understanding threats to the free development of electronic communications. The insights of the experts at the EFF would make it a useful contributor to hearings about the Patriot Act in any case. Given the recent work of the EFF on the Patriot Act, however, the failure to include the organization in the hearing is especially notable.
Just a few weeks ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation released a report of an examination it conducted using documents about the use of the Patriot Act that it had obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. That report concluded that the FBI had violated even the very loose civil liberties requirements of the Patriot Act tens of thousands of times over a period of seven years.
The failure of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security to deal with the contents of this report, showing widespread abuses of the Patriot Act, indicates that yesterday’s hearing was not intended as a serious consideration of the surveillance law. Rather, Lamar Smith’s subcommittee seemed determined merely to go through the motions, giving the merely appearance of an oversight investigation of the Patriot Act.