“I believe that when more of my colleagues and the American public come to understand how the Patriot Act has actually been interpreted in secret, they will insist on significant reforms too,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who tried to block the renewal. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, offered a similar warning.
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Although I have my concerns about some sections of the US Patriot Act, the real issue to me is the lack of transparency. We just don’t know how it’s used. Many of the changes the Act makes to wiretapping laws make sense given the change in technology. I think we are prevented from having a real debate as a society when the Administration’s legal memoranda are kept secret (I do understand keeping secret operational aspects). Perhaps my concerns would disappear if I knew how the Act was being used. Perhaps not.
Does keeping the legal interpretations for the surveillance activities increase the security of the American people? We are trying to prevent acts of terrorism against the US. The risk is that by releasing the memos (which will include some facts and examples), terrorists will learn how to counter the surveillance and thus materially increase the risk of successful attacks. I don’t think keeping the memos secret mitigates the underlying risk of attack. Let’s say the memos disclose that records of calls made via technologies such as Skype fall within the Act and can be obtained via subpoena instead of a warrant. Would the disclosure of this information materially increase the risk of a successful attack? I can’t see how. Terrorists, like the government, need to communicate. Encryption allows easy countering of eaves dropping on content. Who is speaking to who provides some limited information. The terrorists know all of this information can be obtained by a warrant. It’s hard to see how terrorist behavior would be altered by the knowledge that the records of their calls can be obtained by subpoena instead of by warrant. The risks posed by keeping the application of the law secret is the violation of the privacy of innocent Americans and the damage to democratic values of open government. These values are at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. To me, the solution of keeping the memos secret causes serious risks to our society.
I want to be clear that my issue is not necessarily with the US Patriot Act. It might be keeping us safe from horrendous acts of violence. My issue is with the lack of transparency. Let’s learn how the Act is being used and have the discussion as a society about where we want to draw the lines between liberty and control as a society. It means confronting hard questions. I know many would like to stick their head in the sand and avoid the discussion. It’s not the right thing to do.