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July 29, 2015

In 2010, the Senate Debated the Patriot Act for 20 Seconds

Last week’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs spawned a lot of talk about the oversight role of Congress. Here’s an indicator of how seriously members took that role in the past: Back in February 2010, final debate on extending the Patriot Act provisions took about 20 seconds on the Senate floor.

And, at the time, the Senate didn’t even bother to announce that it was extending key provisions of the law.

There were few reporters in the Senate’s press galleries when that happened, and the odds are slim to none that anyone watching on C-SPAN 2 from outside the Capitol would figure out what the Senate had just passed by voice vote. In fact, the Senate inserted the Patriot Act extension into a substitute amendment to an unrelated House bill — an extension of higher payment rates to doctors treating Medicare patients, known as the “doc fix.”

Physical copies of the amendment text surfaced that evening, setting off a scramble in newsrooms where people were paying attention. #WGDB would know, since both of us were there.

Meredith Shiner covered the story for Politico, and I contributed coverage for

The three Patriot Act provisions were set to expire at the end of 2009. But neither House nor Senate Democratic leaders showed any appetite for tackling a substantive rewrite of the law last year. In December, Congress cleared a short-term reauthorization until Feb. 28 this year as part of the fiscal 2010 Defense appropriations bill (PL 111-118).

One of the expiring provisions allows the government to seek orders from a special federal court for “any tangible thing” that it says is related to a terrorism investigation. Another allows the government to seek court orders for roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects who shift their modes of communication.

The third provision allows the government to apply to the special court for surveillance orders involving suspected “lone wolf” terrorists who do not necessarily have ties to a larger organization. That authority was first enacted as part of a 2004 intelligence overhaul law (PL 108-458).

Senate Intelligence leaders said last week that in the 2010 Patriot Act reauthorization, all senators had the opportunity to receive classified briefings on NSA activities, though it’s unclear how many elected representatives took part in the process.

A more robust debate took place in December 2012, when senators voted 73-23 to extend provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for five more years. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., led an unsuccessful effort to amend the bill to require a report on the gathering of domestic communications such as phone calls and emails.

As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Wyden likely knew something about what the report would say, a point Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made on the floor at the time.

“The goal of this amendment is to make information public about a very effective intelligence collection program that is currently classified. All of the information has already been made available to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees. It is available to all members,” Feinstein said. “All they have to do is read it. It is hundreds of pages of material.”

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