With Congress soon to decide again whether to renew parts of the Patriot Act, some but not all of the East Bay's representatives already say they're inclined to let the provisions lapse.
All Bay Area House members except Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, voted against extending certain Patriot Act provisions; McNerney had supported extending them until December, but ultimately they were extended for only 90 days and are set to expire at the end of the month.
Many Patriot Act provisions have been made permanent after being passed in October 2001 to extend law enforcement's reach following the 9/11 attacks.
At issue now are provisions that authorize roving wiretaps on surveillance targets; provisions that let the government access "any tangible items," such as library records, as a part of surveillance; and a "lone wolf" provision that allows surveillance of those in the United States without citizenship, a green card or political asylum who are not connected to an identified terrorist group.
Some in the civil liberties community say -- especially now that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is dead -- it's time to reassess the nation's balance of security measures and civil liberties.
"By allowing the government to stockpile personal information about innocent people, the Patriot Act violates the Constitution and threatens our individual privacy rights," said Linda Lye, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "Americans have the right to be safe and free, but the Patriot Act strikes the wrong balance. Instead of endlessly punting on this critical issue through a series of extensions, Congress needs to safeguard our liberties by allowing the Patriot Act to lapse."
Demand Progress, an online activism group claiming nearly 400,000 members, urged likewise this week. "We need to erase bin Laden's ugly legacy, not extend it," Executive Director Aaron Swartz said in a news release. "By ending the Patriot Act's erosion of our civil liberties, we can protect the freedoms that make America worth fighting for."
McNerney spokeswoman Sarah Hersh in February had said the congressman "has serious concerns with this legislation and believes that we must make substantial changes to the law in order to better preserve our country's most fundamental civil liberties. However, in the meantime, allowing the policy to expire without warning and a comprehensive debate on our security policies would not be advisable."
McNerney "continues to have major concerns about the Patriot Act. He believes there must be substantial changes made to the law in order to better preserve our civil liberties," Hersh said last week. "A bill hasn't been released yet, so Congressman McNerney wants to see the legislation before reaching a decision."
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has authored legislation to extend the provisions through the end of 2013. Asked for comment Friday, her office referred to a February floor speech in which she said these provisions are used often and believes "that being able to have good intelligence is what prevents an attack against a New York subway or air cargo plane. It is what keeps this homeland safe, and it is what allows us to get ahead of a terrorist attack. Without them "... we put our nation in jeopardy."
"I do not support that," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said Friday when asked about Feinstein's 2013 proposal. But he said he's "in the same modality" as McNerney in terms of wanting to see a proposal that would "restrict or eliminate" these provisions before making a decision. "Civil liberties are a very important part of America and I'm not willing to compromise on those."
Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, "has voted against the extension of such provisions in the past and believes that the U.S. intelligence community can do their work without violating Americans' rights," spokeswoman Amy Peake said. "As you know, any debate this month on Patriot Act provisions may include new amendments to change the law, and he will carefully review any potential changes before deciding how to vote on them.
Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and Pete Stark, D-Fremont, both said they'd vote against an extension.
"Now that the target of the entire 'global war on terror' is dead, I would hope that others will come around to my position so we can finally let these provisions lapse. God forbid we would spend less money on military action and actually get out of Afghanistan," Stark said.
Said Lee: "I do not believe we must sacrifice fundamental freedoms including the right to privacy in our effort to manage the threat of terrorism. I will continue to push for an end to invasive intelligence-gathering tactics that come at the expense of vital civil liberties, many of which have been justified by the overly broad executive branch authorization I opposed in the wake of 9/11."
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In the past, she has said she voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, and its reauthorizations in 2006 and in February, because it gives law enforcement the tools it needs to keep Americans safe.
She has expressed concern, however, over provisions such as seizure of library records, and wants those areas tightened up.