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Eighty-Five Organizations Urge New York’s Congressional Delegation To Vote Against Patriot Act Extension

Eighty-five organizations joined the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Bill of Right Defense Campaign to urge the state’s federal lawmakers to vote against legislation to renew those sections of the USA PATRIOT Act (“Patriot Act”) that are scheduled to expire this year. The coalition letter asked legislators to support corrective legislation, such as the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act, or “SAFE Act” (H.R. 1526, S.737), which would restore checks and balances to the exercise of Patriot Act powers.

“Congress must refrain from making the Patriot Act a permanent part of our law,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “Congress should instead use this opportunity to place common sense limits on the Patriot Act while still providing law enforcement agencies the tools they need to protect our safety.”

When Congress passed the Patriot Act in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, it recognized that it was granting broad and unprecedented powers to law enforcement, and that the Act should be reexamined at a later date. Congress designated December 31, 2005, as an expiration date for approximately ten percent of the Patriot Act.

“We now know that the Patriot Act went too far, too fast,” said Udi Ofer, Project Director of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign at the NYCLU. “Congress has five full months remaining before the Patriot Act’s controversial measures expire. Eighty-five organizations, representing tens of thousands of New Yorkers, have now asked New York’s Congressional delegation to take this time to add judicial, legislative and public oversight to Patriot Act powers.”

The letter, sent to lawmakers by fax, email, and first-class mail, was signed by a diverse coalition of eighty-five organizations, including: the American Jewish Congress; Capital Area Council of Churches; Civil Services Employee Association, Local 401; Japanese American Citizens League; Memorial United Methodist Church; NAACP Schenectady; National Association of Korean Americans; Women of Color Policy Network; Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, and the Yemeni American Association.

Last week, three different Congressional committees introduced legislation amending the Patriot Act in response to the sunset clause; none offered the reforms necessary to restore even the minimal constitutional protections of civil rights and civil liberties. The bill currently before the House Judiciary Committee would make nearly all of the Patriot Act permanent. It also fails to include any meaningful reform to prevent the abuse of the law’s secret search and surveillance authority and the broad access to personal records given to federal agents.

The letter urged lawmakers to amend at least three sections in the Patriot Act:

Section 215, which grants the FBI sweeping authority to seize sensitive personal information and belongings, with no notice to the person whose information or property has been seized, and no requirement of proof of individualized criminal activity. The law places a “gag” on an organization (or its representatives) that is served with a Section 215 order by an FBI agent; disclosure to anyone that an order has been received is a crime.

Section 213, known as the “sneak and peek” section, which permits the government to seize property and execute secret searches in ordinary domestic criminal matters (cases that do not involve foreign intelligence surveillance) without informing the target of the search for weeks, months, or years after the search has been executed.

Section 505, which broadens the authority of the FBI to issue “National Security Letters.” With such a letter in hand, a federal agent can seize personal records secretly and without any judicial oversight. A federal district court judge in New York has declared Section 505 to be in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

“The New Yorkers represented by this letter have stepped forward and communicated with our representatives that civil rights and liberties should not be so carelessly abandoned in the name of security,” said Nathan Stamm, volunteer chair of NYBORDC.
Since passage of the Patriot Act, seven state legislatures — including the “red” states of Alaska, Idaho, Colorado and Montana — and local governments in more than 380 cities and towns have passed resolutions calling for reform of provisions in the Patriot Act that undermine constitutional rights. In New York State alone, 26 counties, towns, and cities have passed such resolutions. New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Westchester County, Elmira, Bethlehem and many more municipalities have passed such resolutions.

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