It takes a travesty most vile to compel two groups that are essentially polar opposites to get together and call for reform.
Enter the Patriot Act.
The post-9/11 law has a few provisions dealing with surveillance of everyday citizens not suspected of doing or planning on doing bad things, provisions that are set to expire Sunday assuming a compromise doesn't break through to overcome roadblocks in the U.S. Senate by the likes of Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tea Party Patriots held a joint conference call to explain why groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum are, for once, united in something.
“When the ACLU and the Tea Party Patriots agree on something, then Congress has to listen,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU.
For both groups, it comes down to basic constitutional rights, namely the Fourth Amendment, which protects all Americans against illegal search and seizure. Aspects of the Patriot Act, namely section 215—allowing the collection of Americans' phone records, seem to run pretty damned counter to that.
“As American citizens, we have an issue with the way Washington works," said Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. "And we stood up against Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government and the NSA to collect metadata of all...citizens in this country in our phone records without having a warrant and storing all of this information in a big central database.”
Along with Section 215, the two groups would also like to see the "lone wolf" and roving wiretap provisions disappear.
"We're no longer in the post-9/11 moment. Let those powers lapse," Romero said.
But there is one area where the two groups differ. Martin called for Congress to let the surveillance provisions sunset, be said she'd also accept amending the Patriot Act with the USA Freedom Act, which would bar records from being collected in the same place and require a warrant to access phone records. She called the compromise bill was "closer and in the right direction."
The ACLU, on the other hand, just wants the spying to stop.
“This is the first time in 13-plus years that we've had such a robust debate," Romero said. "And it's time for us to keep that debate going, not to short-circuit it in some type of 11th-hour, back-door deal that will get struck, or might get struck, on Sunday.”
He added that, until now, elements of the Patriot Act have been renewed year after year without much question from many members of Congress.
“And every time the Patriot ct has come up, or various sections of the Patriot Act have come up for renewal, it has received a rote renewal by Congress; a quick rubber stamp by both liberals and conservatives saying we need all these powers to fight the War on Terror.”
But then, he said, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the sweeping surveillance practices that have been taking place since 9/11.
“I think what's most significant about all of this is, the only reason we're having this debate today, and the the only reason the Tea Party and the ACLU can coincide on the need to sunset Section 215 of the Patriot Act has to do with the revelations of Edward Snowden," Romero said. "He exposed the full extent of these surveillance powers used in secret by the National Security Agency.”
Despite their criticisms of specific provisions, neither group has said they want to see the Patriot Act in its entirety expire, and that the three provisions in question have proven ineffective in the years since they were passed.
“We understand the need to protect our country from terrorists, and we want to make sure that we are protected from terrorists while at the same time protecting the freedoms that our guaranteed with our Bill of Rights and specifically with the Fourth Amendment,” Martin said.