In 2005, Congress debated whether or not to re-authorize the Patriot Act – the dreadful, post-9/11 piece of legislation the NSA and FBI now use as legal justification for its mass surveillance of American citizens.

During this re-authorization debate, Senator Obama was very concerned about the potential dangers of the Patriot Act, about trading ‘national security’ for Americans’ constitutional rights and civil liberties. So much so that he was one of only nine senators who signed a letter expressing grave concerns about how the Patriot Act might be abused by those in power, as Timothy Lee (quoted in title) reminded us today in The Washington Post.

Specifically, Obama’s concern centered around Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which uses overly-broad language in permitting the U.S. government to obtain records “relevant” to terror investigations.

Here is a portion of what Obama, along with eight of his colleagues, wrote in a letter to their fellow Senators:

The conference report would allow the government to obtain library, medical and gun records and other sensitive personal information under Section 215 of the Patriot Act on a mere showing that those records are relevant to an authorized intelligence investigation. As business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have argued, this would allow government fishing expeditions targeting innocent Americans. We believe the government should be required to convince a judge that the records they are seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy.

[...]

We are convinced, however, that the three-part standard provides the necessary flexibility in such circumstances. Indeed ,the government need only show that the records they seek are relevant to the activities of a suspected terrorist or spy, a very low burden to meet, but one that will protect innocent Americans from unnecessary surveillance and ensure that government scrutiny is based on individualized suspicion, a fundamental principle of our legal system.

Obama was extremely concerned about the possibility that Section 215 would give U.S. intelligence organizations legal cover to spy on individuals unconnected to proper investigations. Which is why he signed a letter declaring that protecting citizens from unnecessary surveillance, from the violation of their civil liberties, is “a fundamental principle of our legal system.

This is why he, and others, wanted a “three-part standard” written into the Patriot Act which would only allow government surveillance on specific individuals targeted in terror investigations.

Today, in 2013, the U.S. government is doing exactly what Obama feared: engaging in bulk surveillance on millions of American citizens unconnected to individual investigations.

And last month, the Obama administration vociferously opposed the Amash-Conyers Amendment – a piece of legislation which would have reined in those exact same abuses caused by Section 215 about which Senator Obama expressed concern in 2005.

Indeed, the White House called reining in mass surveillance unconnected to individual investigations as an attempt to “dismantle” a critical counter-terrorism tool. And Jay Carney derided the Amash-Conyers amendment for its process:

“This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. We urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”

In 2005, Senator Obama railed against a “blunt” approach. However, it was those trying to ram through re-authorization of the Patriot Act without debate who Obama chastised.

Eight years later, we see that he was right in doing so.

Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG

Author’s Note: the title of this piece is a quote that comes from Timothy Lee’s WaPo article, which I cited above.


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