The Patriot Act was passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and as parts are up for renewal today the act'its backers will be unable to avail themselves of the argument that its critics were, if not actually abetting terrorism, at least tying the president's hands in the fight. It was nonsense, of course, but they were emotional times.
Parts of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews them. The Bush administration would like to see them made permanent, but maintaining these “sunset” provisions insures that Congress, at least once every five years, will reexamine how those provisions are working.
An improbable coalition that includes some of Washington's leading conservatives, the ACLU, gun rights groups, libertarians and medical privacy activists is targeting three specific provisions in the act. One is "sneak and peek" that allows federal law enforcement officers to secretly search a home or office and copy or seize materials without informing the target of the search until perhaps months later. Another allows the government, with very little oversight, to secretly examine records — medical, financial, library, business — held by institutions.
The coalition asks Congress in debating the sunset provisions to satisfy itself that the courts are adequately supervising federal surveillance authority; that investigative resources are indeed being devoted to terrorism "instead of everybody else;" and that privacy rights are being respected.
This is only asking Congress to do its job.