Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama S.2271 - USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization

February 16, 2006

Mr. President, four years ago, following one of the most devastating attacks in our nation's history, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act to give our nation's law enforcement the tools they needed to track down terrorists who plot and lurk within our own borders and all over the world - terrorists who, right now, are looking to exploit weaknesses in our laws and our security to carry out even deadlier attacks than we saw on September 11th.

We all agreed that we needed legislation to make it harder for suspected terrorists to go undetected in this country. Americans everywhere wanted that.

But soon after the PATRIOT Act passed, a few years before I ever arrived in the Senate, I began hearing concerns from people of every background and political leaning that this law didn't just provide law enforcement the powers it needed to keep us safe, but powers it didn't need to invade our privacy without cause or suspicion.

Now, at times this issue has tended to degenerate into an "either-or" type of debate. Either we protect our people from terror or we protect our most cherished principles. But that is a false choice. It asks too little of us and assumes too little about America.

Fortunately, last year, the Senate recognized that this was a false choice. We put patriotism before partisanship and engaged in a real, open, and substantive debate about how to fix the PATRIOT Act. And Republicans and Democrats came together to propose sensible improvements to the Act. Unfortunately, the House was resistant to these changes, and that's why we're voting on the compromise before us.

Let me be clear: this compromise is not as good as the Senate version of the bill, nor is it as good as the SAFE Act that I have cosponsored. I suspect the vast majority of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle feel the same way. But, it's still better than what the House originally proposed.

This compromise does modestly improve the PATRIOT Act by strengthening civil liberties protections without sacrificing the tools that law enforcement needs to keep us safe. In this compromise:

We strengthened judicial review of both National Security Letters, the administrative subpoenas used by the FBI, and Section 215 orders, which can be used to obtain medical, financial and other personal records.

We established hard time limits on sneak-and-peak searches and limits on roving wiretaps.

We protected most libraries from being subject to National Security Letters.

We preserved an individual's right to seek counsel and hire an attorney without fearing the FBI's wrath.

And we allowed judicial review of the gag orders that accompany Section 215 searches.

The compromise is far from perfect. I would have liked to see stronger judicial review of National Security Letters and shorter time limits on sneak and peak searches, among other things.

Sen. Feingold has proposed several sensible amendments - that I support - to address these issues. Unfortunately, the Majority Leader is preventing Sen. Feingold from offering these amendments through procedural tactics. That is regrettable because it flies in the face of the bipartisan cooperation that allowed the Senate to pass unanimously its version of the Patriot Act - a version that balanced security and civil liberties, partisanship and patriotism.

The Majority Leader's tactics are even more troubling because we will need to work on a bipartisan basis to address national security challenges in the weeks and months to come. In particular, members on both sides of the aisle will need to take a careful look at President Bush's use of warrantless wiretaps and determine the right balance between protecting our security and safeguarding our civil liberties. This is a complex issue. But only by working together and avoiding election-year politicking will we be able to give our government the necessary tools to wage the war on terror without sacrificing the rule of law.

So, I will be supporting the Patriot Act compromise. But I urge my colleagues to continue working on ways to improve the civil liberties protections in the Patriot Act after it is reauthorized.

I thank the chair and yield the floor.