Yesterday in the U.S. Senate, majority leader Harry Reid introduced a motion to table his own legislation to renew the Patriot Act for four years. Why would Senator Reid do such a thing? The maneuver was conducted so as to prevent other senators from amending the legislation and reforming the Patriot Act.
Jeff Merkley was one of 13 senators who voted against the motion to circumvent the normal process of amendments. Before that vote took place, Senator Merkley explained the importance of efforts to reform the Patriot Act through amendment, talking about the extremely loose standards of control over government spying established by the Patriot Act. Merkley said:
“The fourth amendment is powerful protection of personal privacy from the overreach of government. How does that compare in contrast to the PATRIOT Act that is before us?
Let me tell you the standard that is in the PATRIOT Act for the government to seize your papers, to search your papers, and that standard is simply ‘relevant’ to an ‘investigation.’ Relevant to an investigation? That is the legal standard set out in the PATRIOT Act. That is a standard that was written to be as broad and low as possible. What does it mean to be ‘relevant’relevant” to an investigation? It certainly isn’t something as strong as probable cause, which is in the fourth amendment. It certainly isn’t describing the place to be searched, the persons and things to be seized. Indeed, the word ‘relevant’ doesn’t have a foundation of legal tradition that provides any boundaries at all.
Let’s take the term ‘investigation.’ ‘Investigation’ is in the eye of the beholder. I want to look into something, so that is an investigation. What happens to these words in the PATRIOT Act, in the section of the PATRIOT Act that addresses the sweeping powers to investigate Americans down to the books they check out, their medical records, and their private communications? Quite simply, there is a process in theory in which a court, known as the FISA Court, makes a determination, but they make the determination upon this standard–that this standard is ‘relevant to an investigation.’
Now, the interpretation of that clause is done in secret. I would defy you to show me a circumstance where a secret interpretation of a very minimal standard is tightened in that secret process. But we don’t know because we are not being told.”