THE PATRIOT ACT -- (Senate - December 19, 2005)
Mr. DAYTON. Mr. President, last Saturday, President Bush castigated those of us who voted against cloture on the PATRIOT Act. He said:
That decision is irresponsible and it endangers the lives of our citizens.
That is a mistaken characterization. Every Senator supported the Senate's reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act last July when it passed the Senate unanimously.
Last Friday, 47 of us said the House-Senate conference report is not yet good enough. Before we make the PATRIOT Act permanent, we must make it right.
The PATRIOT Act that we passed 4 years ago, which I supported, gave the Federal Government unprecedented powers to conduct surveillance on American citizens and demand information about their private activities, about their personal lives. We passed the PATRIOT Act hastily in the Senate 4 years ago, too hastily in retrospect. We passed it when my caucus was in the majority. So we, and I, were responsible for that haste. It seemed necessary in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
One important consideration for this Senator, then, when we voted for the PATRIOT Act was that it would sunset in 4 years, and this Congress would take the time to review it carefully and modify it as necessary to assure the proper balance between combating terrorism and protecting the privacy of innocent Americans.
As I said 5 months ago, the Senate passed unanimously our reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act with important changes to protect constitutional rights of innocent American citizens.
The House passed its version of the new PATRIOT Act in July, also, allowing plenty of time for the House-Senate conference committee to resolve their differences in the best interests of all Americans. But the House did not appoint conferees until last month. The House leaders chose to engage in this take-it-or-leave-it brinksmanship to try to force the Senate to accept their permanent invasion of the private lives of innocent Americans.
Last Friday, 47 Senators--5 Republicans, 41 Democrats, and 1 independent--said: No, we will not accept this version of the PATRIOT Act. We do not oppose the PATRIOT Act, as the President and others have falsely charged. Most of us voted for the original law 4 years ago, and all of us in this Senate voted for the new one last July. Many of us, myself included, have proposed extending the existing law for another 3 months to give conferees time to resolve our remaining differences to design a permanent PATRIOT Act that most of us can support.
What we haven't said is there is more brinkmanship with the President and the Senate leader threatening to let the existing law expire so they can blame 47 of us for supposedly weakening the protections of the American people.
Let us be very clear. Let the American people be very clear. If the PATRIOT Act is allowed to expire, that is the choice and the responsibility of the President and the Senate majority leadership.
Today is December 19. The Senate is still in session with 12 more days until the year's end. That is enough time either to revise the conference report so that it has broad bipartisan support in the Senate or to extend the existing law.
All of us, every Member of this Senate, supported the Senate version of the new law that passed unanimously 5 months ago. It is absurd and wrong for detractors to claim that we do not support it now when we just disagree with a few but a very important few features in it.
Last Saturday, President Bush also reasserted his right to do whatever he deems necessary to protect the American people from terrorist attacks. That is an enormous responsibility, one that Congress shares with him. However, we differ in our approaches.
The President's legal counsel has opined that he has the constitutional authority as Commander in Chief and the legal authority from Congress post-9/11 to override or ignore any laws or limitations that he decides necessary to combat terrorism.
Whether Congress intended ``any and all force necessary'' to include that authority is highly questionable. But that is the President's operating assumption.
If the President can do whatever he wants, whether it is legal or not, and his decision to do it makes it legal, then in a sense the PATRIOT Act is not even necessary because the President can order it all done anyway.
In another sense, however, our getting the PATRIOT Act right becomes even more imperative because we are a nation of laws, laws which must be followed by everyone--even the President, even the FBI, even the National Security Agency, during good times and bad, during war and peace, because our existence as a nation, as a constitutional democracy requires it and depends upon it.
No external threat to our way of life could be so great as the danger that our rule of law not be obeyed by our most powerful institutions and individuals.
This Senate exists to make those laws. Every one of us--all 100 of us--takes that responsibility most seriously because we assume that our laws matter, that they will be honored and obeyed, or that they will be enforced so that they will define the legal courses of action that everyone in this country must follow. Otherwise, we are irrelevant and laws that we enact are meaningless.
Our operating assumption, however, continues to be that our laws will be obeyed, and, thus, our efforts in the Senate do matter. That is why we want and we deserve the time necessary to get our laws right. That is the way our process is supposed to work. All 41 or more Senators to hold up legislation in order to get it right is the way our process is supposed to work.
It is strange, to say the least, that those who assert their right to ignore our rules and our laws are vilifying us in this Senate for following them.
For people watching us today who may be unfamiliar with the details of the existing PATRIOT Act, let me give you an example of what it is that we are trying to correct.
According to the Washington Post, last year, under the PATRIOT Act, some 56 FBI field agents signed over 30,000 national security letters. That is 100 times more than before the act. They were not directed toward possible terrorists but, rather, to people, to businesses, to universities, to libraries that might have information about people who might be terrorists. The PATRIOT Act requires them to turn over the information demanded, the most personal information, including health records, Internet use, upon demand, with no recourse. It is a criminal act under the PATRIOT Act for them to tell anyone else about the Government's demands, even to consult with an attorney.
Under an Executive order which President Bush signed 2 years ago, all that private-personal information remains permanently in the Government's files and can be shared with other Government agencies even after the suspect has been determined to be completely innocent.
The new PATRIOT Act, which 100 Senators unanimously supported last July, would not prevent the Federal Government from demanding that information on some 30,000 businesses, universities, and individuals every year in order to combat terrorism.
It would only provide minimal legal rights of independent judicial review of those demands when some innocent person, business, library, or university believes the Federal Government has gone too far.
No one wants to prevent the Federal Government from stopping terrorists or preventing terrorist acts against the United States. We do want to prevent some people, however well intended they believe they are, from going too far. Secret torture prisons in other countries is going too far. Spying on Americans is going too far. Denying due process, even the right to consult with an attorney, for innocent Americans, is going too far.
Former Republican Congressman Robert Barr said it well:
Enough of this business of justifying everything as necessary for the war on terror. Either the Constitution and the laws of this country mean something or they don't. It's truly frightening what is going on in this country.
Thank you, Congressman Barr.
Those in the Senate who believe the Constitution and our laws enacted under it still mean something, we are trying to get the PATRIOT Act before we make it permanent, and we deserve our right to do so. It is an inversion and a perversion of the values of this great Nation when it becomes legitimate to set up illegal torture prisons in other countries or to conduct illegal spying in this country but illegitimate for the Senate to carry out its own due process.
This Senate must not adjourn for this year until we either extend the existing PATRIOT Act or pass a new one acceptable to a broad bipartisan majority of this Senate. Anyone who prevents Members from doing one or the other is placing their personal politics ahead of the protection of the American people. That would be dangerous and destructive personal politics. That is why we must vote on a 3-month extension of the existing PATRIOT Act or a new conference report before we adjourn this year.
I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.