Senators Wyden & Udall To DOJ: Stop Saying Patriot Act Isn't A Secret Law When You Know It Is

from the will-it-matter? dept

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been pressing the feds for a while now concerning their secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, which appears to go way, way, way beyond what most in the public believe on simply reading the bill. While the two Senators had put forth an Amendment to explain these secret interpretations when certain provisions of the Patriot Act were up for renewal, they eventually dropped the Amendment in exchange for some other concessions, and a promise that hearings would be held on the issue. Since then, the Senators have continued to press the feds on this issue at every opportunity, leading to quite a lot of doublespeak from the feds.

The latest development is that the two Senators have sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, saying that Justice Department representatives are clearly misleading the public about the interpretation of the law. Basically, they say that there's a classified ruling about the interpretation of the law, which some in the government (including Wyden, Udall and Holder) are clearly aware of, but which likely interprets the law vastly differently than most in the public would. And the statements from the Justice Department improperly imply that the details surrounding the law are publicly known -- when they are not.

Shorter version: There's a secret court ruling out there that says the government can spy on a ton of people under the Patriot Act, even though the text of the law seems to suggest otherwise. And the Justice Department is implying that the text of the law is an accurate representation of what the law actually is -- when the secret court ruling seems to say otherwise.
While we are sure that you would agree that government officials should not describe government authorities in a way that misleads the public, during your tenure Justice Department officials have -- on a number of occasions -- made what we believe are misleading statements pertaining to the government's interpretation of surveillance law.

The first set of statements that concern us are the repeated claims by Justice Department officials that the government's authority to obtain business records or other 'tangible things' under section 215 of the USA Patriot Act is analogous to the use of a grand jury subpoena. This comparison -- which we consider highly misleading -- has been made by Justice Department officials on multiple occasions, including in testimony before Congress. As you know, Section 215 authorities are not interpreted the same way that grand jury subpoena authorities are, and we are concerned that when Justice Department officials suggest that the two authorities are "analogous" they provide the public with a false understanding of how surveillance law is interpreted in practice.

More recently, we were troubled to learn that a Justice Department spokesman state that "Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] is not a secret law, nor has it been implemented under secret legal opinions by the Justice Department." This statement is also extremely misleading. As the NSA General Counsel testified in July of this year, significant interpretations of section 215 of the Patriot Act are contained in classified opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and these opinions -- and the legal interpretations they contain -- continue to be kept secret. In our judgment, when the government relies on significant interpretations of public statutes that are kept secret from the American public, the government is effectively relying on secret law.
Separately, they note that when the truth comes out, the government is going to be severely embarrassed:
Americans will eventually and inevitably come to learn about the gap that currently exists between the public's understanding of government surveillance authorities and the official, classified interpretation of these authorities. We believe the best way to avoid a negative public reaction and an erosion in confidence in US intelligence agencies is to initiate an informed public debate about these authorities today.

Filed Under: eric holder, fisa, geolocation, james clapper, mark udall, patriot act, privacy, ron wyden, secrecy, senate

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  1. icon
    Beta (profile), 22 Sep 2011 @ 8:42pm

    What am I missing?

    There are times when I get the feeling that I am fundamentally, neurologically different from most of the public.

    By inquiring after this "interpretation", we give it legitimacy, we imply that it has weight. If I had the power of a Senator, I wouldn't be trying to get the Department of Justice to go public with its secret "interpretation" of the law; I'd be investigating whether any agent of the DoJ had broken the law (the actual law, not the "Simon Says" version), and if so, typing up some indictments, clearing the court calendar and airing out a couple of prison cells.

    "Don't worry about it, your Honor, we have our own interpretation of the law that says that what we did was totally fine." Can you imagine what a judge would say to that?

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