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Issue Position: Civil Rights and Liberties - USA PATRIOT Act

Issue Position


The USA PATRIOT Act, originally passed in 2001, has been one of the most controversial laws enacted in recent memory. The most prudent thing Congress did in passing the original USA PATRIOT Act was to sunset certain provisions, thus ensuring that a future Congress would review and revise them.

Throughout its existence, the most contentious provision of the PATRIOT Act has been Section 215 (Access to Business Records). Prior to the enactment of the PATRIOT Act, federal investigators could obtain access to flight records, car rental receipts or hotel records under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) without obtaining a subpoena from a federal court. Section 215 expanded this ability to allow investigators to obtain any tangible business record, including library circulation records and bookstore receipts. Under this law, businesses who are requested to provide this information cannot divulge that they were requested to do so. This provision is an alarming invasion of privacy and since its inception, Rep. Eshoo has fought against it.

On June 15, 2005, Rep. Eshoo voted for an amendment offered by Rep. Sanders to H.R. 2862, the Science, State, Justice & Commerce Appropriations Act for FY 2006, that prohibited federal funds from being used to acquire library circulation records, library patron lists, or bookstore sales records without judicial approval. The amendment was adopted by the House by a vote of 238 to 187. Despite its support in both the House and Senate, this language was subsequently removed from the final Conference Report on H.R. 2862.

Because several provisions of the original USA PATRIOT Act were set to expire on December 31, 2005, H.R. 3199, the USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization and Improvement Act, was introduced to permanently extend all provisions of the law except for Section 215, Section 206 (Roving Wiretaps) and the "Lone Wolf" terrorist provision.

Despite the controversy surrounding the PATRIOT Act, H.R. 3199 failed to address many of the serious civil liberties concerns that have been raised since its original enactment. Most notably, H.R. 3199 failed to correct the problems caused by Section 215 and expanded the use of National Security Letters (see below). During consideration of H.R. 3199 by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Eshoo offered an amendment that prohibited the FBI from obtaining library and bookstore records. Rep. Eshoo's amendment was defeated in Committee and she was not allowed to offer it during consideration of this bill by the full House. Because of these shortfalls, Rep. Eshoo voted against H.R. 3199, which ultimately passed the House on July 21, 2005 by a vote of 257 to 171.

After House passage, Rep. Eshoo joined her colleagues in sending a letter to House-Senate Conferees on H.R. 3199 urging them to adopt the Senate-passed language regarding Section 215. This language would have required the FBI to provide facts to prove the records sought were relevant to a terrorist investigation, require the Department of Justice to report to Congress annually about the number of times Section 215 was used and sunset the provision after four years. Because these protections were not included in the Conference Report on H.R. 3199, Rep. Eshoo also voted against it on December 14, 2005. Unfortunately, the Conference Report passed the House by a vote of 251 to 174.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of Senators managed to block consideration of the Conference Report because of its failure to provide adequate protections for the rights of American citizens. S. 2271, the USA PATRIOT Act Additional Reauthorizing Amendments Act, was subsequently introduced to appease these concerns. Unfortunately, this legislation provided mostly cosmetic changes and failed to provide substantial changes to the underlying bill. Rep. Eshoo opposed S. 2271, which passed the House by a vote of 280-138.

Ultimately, the President signed H.R. 3199 and S. 2271 into law on March 9, 2006.

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