"It would be unconscionable for the Democratic House to pass any PATRIOT Act reauthorization without critical privacy reforms."
Progressive privacy advocates and civil libertarians on Wednesday called on constituents to urgently call their representative in the U.S. House and demand they vote against a surveillance bill that would allow the Justice Department and FBI to spy on the internet browser histories of people living in the United States—including citizens and undocumented immigrants.
After an amendment designed to strengthen the bill was dropped, opponents said it was vital for the bill—a version of which passed the U.S. Senate by a single vote last week—to be defeated outright.
With the vote first expected as early as Wednesday night, groups like Fight for the Future and Demand Progress—as well as other opponents—warned there was only a little time left. Later—following uproar and an apparent lack of votes among the Democratic majority to pass the bill, the vote was postponed until at least Thursday.
Defeating or delaying the bill, said Evan Greer, policy director for Fight for the Future, "will give us more time to keep fighting and organizing. And it will send a strong message to leadership of both parties that the public is fed up with having our tax dollars wasted on creepy surveillance programs that don't make anyone safer. CALL YOUR REPS RIGHT NOW."
Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel with the advocacy group Demand Progress, condemned leaders in the House for pushing "a bill that fails to protect internet activity with a warrant" and called for all members from both major parties to vote "No."
"It would be unconscionable for the Democratic House to pass any PATRIOT Act reauthorization without critical privacy reforms that would pass the Senate," said Vitka. "It is on Congress, and in particular House Democrats, to protect people from [Attorney General] Bill Barr's FBI."
As outside critics were rallying opposition to the bill, Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, late Wednesday afternoon announced their official opposition and said they were actively urging members to vote against it.
"We have grave concerns that this legislation does not protect people in the United States from warrantless surveillance, especially their online activity including web browsing and internet searches," said Jayapal and Pocan in a joint statement. "Despite some positive reforms, the legislation is far too narrow in scope and would still leave the public vulnerable to invasive online spying and data collection."
"We cannot in good conscience vote for legislation that violates Americans' fundamental right to privacy," added Jayapal and Pocan. "Therefore, we will be opposing the bill, as well as recommending a 'no' vote to members of the Progressive Caucus. For months, we've worked to overhaul the expansive surveillance powers authorized in Section 215. There's no reason to rush through a multi-year authorization that fails to make critical reforms needed to protect the civil liberties of the American public."
Defending the passage of the bill on the House floor during Wednesday's debate, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the legislation was an "American bill" that he claimed would "keep the country safe."
But despite such tired arguments that civil liberties must be sacrificed to national security and the so-called "safety" of the nation, Fight for the Future said—leapfrogging over the legislative gymnastics that led up to Wednesday's vote (see here)—that the best thing for Congress to ultimately do is repeal the post-9/11 Patriot Act once and for all:
Progressive critics warned that Democrats like Hoyer were letting Trump and Republicans come off as righteous heroes by standing as the chief opponents—even if for the wrong or cynical reasons—for what is a deeply flawed bill.
As Common Dreams reported earlier, House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff was a target of specific ire for his role in sabotaging the amendment which sought to strengthen the bill's privacy protections and judicial oversight. As Gizmodo's Dell Cameron remarked after the day's developments, "Although it's really been something of a mass delusion for a while, the idea that Democrats are somehow better than Republicans on the Fourth Amendment is, as of this week, nothing short of a joke."
The fact that the GOP-controlled Senate has managed to pass more progressive privacy reforms than the Democratic majority in the House, which has introduced precisely none, should not go unnoticed," Cameron added. "But it may also be time to stop feigning surprise when things like this happen and accept that when it comes to privacy, the Schiff roadblock is now the biggest obstacle of them all.
And Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress, tweeted during Wednesday afternoon's contentious floor debate in the House:
"House Democrats had an opportunity to enact meaningful protections that would have kept people safe," said Greer. "Instead they let Rep. Adam Schiff throw it all away at the last minute."
Update: This piece was updated to include several developments, including the postponement of the vote and statements from the CPC co-chairs.