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Patriot Act Redux

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During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama, touting his background as a professor who taught Constitutional Law, often waxed eloquent about his commitment to civil liberties and to correcting the Patriot Act's threats to basic constitutional protections.

It was part of his stump speech on the campaign trail. And in one of the presidential debates he said "I like to think that had I been in the Senate [in 2001], I would have [voted] against the Patriot Act."

And so, it might have been expected that when the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee began consideration, last week, of whether or not to renew some of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, they would have made an effort to fulfill the president's campaign promise. And that the White House would have weighed in, in favor of reform.

Three sections of the Act (the so-called "library provision", the use of roving wiretaps, and the "lone wolf" provision) are due to expire, at years end, and this, therefore, was the time to either let them expire or, as the New York Times advocated "add missing civil liberties and privacy protections, address known abuses and trim excesses."

Of particular concern to civil libertarians was the fact that the three sections of the Patriot Act in question have allowed law enforcement to wire tap and to seize the records of businesses, institutions (including libraries), and individuals without judicial review or oversight and without ever establishing evidence of suspected terrorist activity.

Civil libertarians of the right and left urged the Senate not to reauthorize the three provisions without providing new restraints on law enforcement and adequate protections, ensuring that rights be safeguarded. Alas, the Committee voted last week, with the White House's blessing, to send to the full Senate, for its consideration, a reauthorized Patriot Act largely intact.

(watch Bill Press discussing the Patriot Act on "Viewpoint with James Zogby")

...But Not Without Some Comic Relief

The debate within the Committee had one comic (or tragic) moment. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) attempted to amend the proposed Patriot Act reauthorization with a provision that would have required law enforcement to demonstrate a terrorist connection before they could use the Act's sweeping powers to wiretap or seize records.

In arguing against Senator Durbin's effort, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said that his amendment was unnecessary since she felt that the bill, as proposed, already included protection enough. To make her case, she then went on to read aloud what she thought was the bill she favored, concluding triumphantly that what she had read provided adequate safeguards.

All well and good, except as Senator Durbin then pointed out, "you just read my amendment."

Unabashed, Klobuchar voted against the Durbin amendment that she had just read aloud and praised.

And this is how our laws are made!