Senators Press Holder to Declassify Key Facts about Patriot Act

"Most members of Congress - and nearly all of the American public -- lack important information about the issue".

Washington, D.C. - In anticipation of the upcoming Senate debate over Patriot Act reauthorization, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to declassify key information pertaining to the law's "business records" provision (Section 215). Today's letter follows a classified letter that the senators sent Holder in June 2009.

"We appreciate that the Department of Justice has taken action on several of the issues we raised," wrote the senators. "However, the Department has yet to act on - or respond to - the issue we raised in the first two paragraphs of our letter."

Senator Wyden discussed this issue in a recent column for the Huffington Post and Senators Feingold and Durbin raised it during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's recent mark-up of reauthorization legislation. All argued that this currently classified information "is essential to understanding the full scope of the PATRIOT Act."


The "business records" provision sets the standard that the government must meet to obtain an individual's personal information from banks, hospitals, libraries, retail stores and other institutions. Prior to 9/11, if the FBI or another government agency was conducting an intelligence investigation and wanted to obtain an individual's personal records from the institution that was holding them, the government had to have evidence indicating that the person whose records were sought was a terrorist or a spy. The Patriot Act lowered this standard to permit the government to collect any records deemed "relevant to an investigation."

Wyden, Feingold and Durbin have argued that the relevance standard is overly broad and that Congress should adopt a new standard that would give the government flexibility in terrorism investigations while protecting the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens. To properly debate this issue, the senators argue the classified information referenced in today's letter must be taken into account.

"Informed discussion is not possible when most members of Congress - and nearly all of the American public - lack important information about the issue," the senators concluded.

The full text of the letter is available here and below:

November 17, 2009

The Honorable Eric Holder

Attorney General

United States Department of Justice

Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Attorney General Holder:

In June 2009 we and other Senators wrote a classified letter to you requesting the declassification of information which we argued was critical for a productive debate on reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. We appreciate that the Department of Justice has taken action on several of the issues we raised, including the release of information about use of the "lone wolf" surveillance authority. We also appreciate the Department's pledge to establish a process for releasing information contained in key decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, the Department has yet to act on - or respond to - the issue we raised in the first two paragraphs of our letter.

We believe that the information we referenced in those paragraphs - specifically about the use of section 215 - is essential to understanding the full scope of the PATRIOT Act, which is about to be debated in Congress. As we said in June, if you have concerns about declassifying the specific language contained in our letter, we ask that you work with us to find language that conveys enough information to allow for an informed public debate on the PATRIOT Act's reauthorization.

The PATRIOT Act was passed in a rush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sunsets were attached to the Act's most controversial provisions, to permit better-informed, more deliberative consideration of them at a later time. Now is the time for that deliberative consideration, but informed discussion is not possible when most members of Congress - and nearly all of the American public - lack important information about the issue.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,