So a couple of days ago, President Obama (or, more accurately, a mechanical President Obama impersonator) signed off on an extension of several key provisions of the Patriot Act. TPM’s Ryan J. Reilly has a rundown of what we know about the provisions here. I say “what we know” because, as Spencer Ackerman reported a day earlier, we don’t know as much about the bill as we thought we did:
Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.
“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”
Because Wyden can’t elaborate on classified information, there’s no way for us to know for sure what the government’s secret interpretation of the act looks like. The closest we can get is probably Julian Sanchez’s circumstantial case for a secret expansion of the government’s geolocation tracking powers. And the same thing that goes for us rubes in the peanut gallery also goes for most of the Senators and House members who voted for the extension — Wyden has clearance to see the White House’s version of the law, but most of his colleagues don’t.
So to clarify: President Obama goes to Congress with an unmarked box tucked under his arm. He displays the box to the assembled Congresspeople and says, “You will grant me the power to use the contents of this box whenever I see fit.” Congress doesn’t inspect the box. Only a tiny handful of them look in the box, and what they see they keep to themselves. And the rest just affix their rubber stamp so they can get back to the real work of failing to pass a budget.
What I’d like to see is the list of Congresspeople who don’t have the clearance to see what this law really does, but blithely cast their vote for it anyway. Then I’d like to call up the offices of each and every one of them and ask them what they think Congress’ oversight duties are supposed to entail.