Section 215 Revisited

I couldn’t have been happier when President Obama drew up plans to shut down Gitmo during his first week in office.  It signaled the very break with the Bush administration that he emphasized throughout his campaign.  Now, the next step is to rework, or better yet abolish, the Patriot Act, right?  Well, perhaps not.  As the San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal explain, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder, has not only hesitated to consider amending the Patriot Act, he has actually asked Congress to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act which, in part, reads:

The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.

Section 215 is one of the sections of the Patriot Act that has caused the biggest controversy, as it not only endorses surveillance, it also directly threatens readers’ privacy and other related civil liberties.  Section 215 is vehemently opposed by numerous independent booksellers groups as well as the American Library Association, and the latter sent a report last month to the transitional Obama administration recommending a thorough review and reworking of the Patriot Act, especially Section 215.

Of course, it’s still to early to know for sure how all of this will turn out, but sentiments such as Holder’s, who, in response to Section 215, said:

That’s one that I think has certainly generated more controversy, I believe, than the other two. And I think that the examination, the questions that I need to ask people in the field and who have been using that, I’d want to know as much as I possibly can. But as I said, the tools that we have been given by Congress in FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] are important ones. And so I would look at all three of these and make the determination as to whether or not I will be able to support them. But I would expect that I would.

are quite discouraging.  Without reconsidering and reworking the Patriot Act—one of the Bush administration’s most controversial, invasive, and violating legacies—Obama’s claims at distancing himself from the Bush administration will appear rather empty and acts such as shutting down Gitmo will seem to be nothing more than hypocritical gestures.

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2 Responses

  1. My office is hot. I am irritable. Quibble:

    I would never refer to the closure of GITMO as a “hypocritical gesture”. Although gathering information through invasive means that run counter to fundamental privacy rights is awful, it doesn’t diminish the return of due process for one and all. OK, so they’re both civil liberties issues and the new administration has a long way to go AND you could argue that the Patriot Act undermines due process from the front-end. I agree with you–of course!–in most every respect. But don’t downplay the importance of shutting down GITMO, outlawing torture, etc.

  2. You’re right to quibble, Alex. I suppose that what would be hypocritical is all that comes after the monumental and symbolic act of closing Gitmo, should the Obama administration fail to abolish or, at the very least, rework the Patriot Act. But my sentiments remain the same: if Holder upholds the Patriot Act, then Obama’s talk of change and hope and a new Washington will be very much compromised.

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