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Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform

by TChris

Supporters of the most obnoxious provisions of the Patriot Act contend that national security is more important than privacy or civil liberties. But many of the Act's supporters in Congress are even more concerned about their continuing receipt of campaign contributions from the corporate world. Corporate opposition to the Patriot Act captures their attention more readily than impassioned pleas from civil rights advocates.

Fearing a terrorist attack, the FBI descended on casinos, car rental agencies, storage warehouses, and other Las Vegas businesses with sheaves of "national security letters" demanding financial records covering about 1 million revelers. Startled business owners who questioned the action were told they had one choice: cough up their documents or wind up in court.

Any time a federal law burdens a significant number of businesses, Congress hears about it.

"Businesses want to cooperate in the war on terrorism, but this type of unchecked government power goes a little over the line," says Bob Shepler, director of corporate finance at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

Indeed it does. Businesses that receive national security letters are told to keep their existence secret. The businesses have no obvious mechanism to seek review of the command to violate their customers’ privacy, and they often don’t think it’s fair to turn over private information about customers without telling the customers about the intrusion.

Concerned about the circumvention of due process guarantees -- and about hefty compliance costs -- a half-dozen prominent business groups have joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to push Congress to narrow the law's scope. What's surprising in today's with-me-or-against-me Washington is that the coalition includes such Bush allies as NAM, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Realtors.

The Justice Department claims it doesn’t overreach or engage in fishing expeditions. That claim is difficult to reconcile with the number of national security letters the administration has issued pursuant to the Patriot Act.

Since 2001 the feds have served as many as 30,000 letters a year, according to Administration sources and civil libertarians.

Maybe they aren’t fishing, but what’s wrong with requiring the government to obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate before prying into private information? That requirement would help businesses that are now caught in the middle.

They say that compliance with the demands puts confidential financial data, trade secrets, and other proprietary information at risk. Another concern: the fear that multinationals could land in legal trouble abroad -- particularly in Europe -- for violating stringent privacy laws there if they comply with U.S. government demands for financial records.

Working with civil rights organizations, a plan has been proposed.

The business alliance spelled out its reform agenda in an Oct. 4 letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). The groups argue that the Patriot Act's Sections 215 and 505 "allow the federal government to require voluminous and often sensitive records...without [public] judicial oversight or other meaningful checks on the government's power." …

They argue in their Oct. 4 letter that the law "does not impose any limit on the breadth of records" demanded by federal agents, and they are seeking "a meaningful right to challenge the order when the order is unreasonable, oppressive, or seeks privileged [business] information." The coalition has urged Congress to give companies the right to seek court permission to lift the act's lifetime gag orders, an idea that may be taking hold.

The “usually business-friendly Bush Administration” doesn’t care, but elected senators and representatives have to care if they want to keep hauling in campaign contributions. And so negotiations over proposed reforms may leave the administration with a law that, while still unreasonably expansive of the federal power to snoop, is at least a bit better.

Gonzales is likely to be disappointed by many of the other provisions negotiators are now hammering out. Both the Senate and House versions of the measure would allow a judge to modify an FBI order that was deemed unreasonably burdensome on a business. And on Nov. 9, the House directed its team to accept Senate-passed provisions setting a four-year sunset clause on many of the Patriot Act's key provisions, despite Administration opposition.

In final negotiations, the Senate is pushing its House counterparts to incorporate most of the safeguards sought by commercial interests. One big victory for the corporate coalition came on Nov. 9 when House negotiators agreed to permit businesses or individuals to seek judicial review of national security letters. Senate leaders believe they have an agreement on another top business concern: limiting the power of law enforcement to keep company records on file forever. A tentative deal would require investigators to return or destroy lists they've obtained, such as those covering airline passengers or casino customers, if the terror tip turns out to be a dud.

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  • Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#1)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:57 PM EST
    hey say that compliance with the demands puts confidential financial data, trade secrets, and other proprietary information at risk.
    Good. Tough luck. Business put the Republicans in office, now they have to live with the consequences. Some loss of civil liberty in the name of undermining the erosion of the public good caused by mass privatization is justified.

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#2)
    by jimcee on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:57 PM EST
    I have no problem with the Congress re-jiggering some parts of the Patriot Act or with business lobbying for changes to it. Like all laws there is a 'shakedown cruise' phase to see how it performs and adjustments are made afterwards. Sounds OK to me.

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:57 PM EST
    the "usually business friendly bush administration" doesn't have to care, it's been a lame duck since a year ago. short of impeachment, what are you going to do to him?

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:58 PM EST
    The old cliche is true, politics truly makes for strange bedfellows. The corporate folks, I think, have realized that some of the Patriot Act could aid the feds in white collar investigations.

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#5)
    by roy on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:58 PM EST
    Some loss of civil liberty in the name of undermining the erosion of the public good caused by mass privatization is justified.
    The Repubican scheme is not privatization. It is corporate welfare. and cronyism. Privatization implies, at the very least, bidding and a lack of special treatment. Preferrably "letting the market handle it". Sorry to nitpick.

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#6)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:06:01 PM EST
    I'm confused: corporate America now is rethinking this abomination because it is WRONG!!!!! or because it is futzing with their bottom line? Gee, let me guess ...

    Re: Corporate Interests Seek Patriot Act Reform (none / 0) (#7)
    by pigwiggle on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:06:01 PM EST
    “The Repubican scheme is not privatization. It is corporate welfare. and cronyism.”
    Hear hear. It’s been interesting to watch oil execs defend their quarterly profits in front of congress, and yet the lumbering $4 billion welfare elephant, birthed by the ‘energy’ bill, somehow left legislators untouched. We can add a few Democrats to the corporate welfare cheerleading roster. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, for example; well, one politician’s welfare is another’s pork.