Democrats renege on Patriot Act promise

The Democratic-controlled judiciary committee votes to send to the Senate, with the White House's blessing, a renewal of the controverisal legislation.

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During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama, touting his background as a professor who taught constitutional law, often waxed eloquent about his commitment to civil liberties and to correcting the Patriot Act's threats to basic constitutional protections. It was part of his stump speech on the campaign trail. And in one of the presidential debates he said, "I like to think that had I been in the Senate [in 2001], I would have [voted] against the Patriot Act."

And so, it might have been expected that when the Democratic-controlled Senate judiciary committee began consideration last week of whether or not to renew some of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, they would have made an effort to fulfil the president's campaign promise and that the White House would have weighed in, in favour of reform. Three sections of the act (the so-called "library provision", the use of roving wiretaps, and the "lone wolf" provision) are due to expire, at the end of the year, and this, therefore, was the time to either let them expire or, as The New York Times advocated, "add missing civil liberties and privacy protections, address known abuses and trim excesses".

Of particular concern to civil libertarians was the fact that the three sections of the Patriot Act in question have allowed law enforcement to wiretap and to seize the records of businesses, institutions (including libraries), and individuals without judicial review or oversight, and without ever establishing evidence of suspected terrorist activity. Civil libertarians, of the right and left, urged the Senate not to reauthorise the three provisions without providing new restraints on law enforcement and adequate protections, ensuring that rights be safeguarded. Alas, the committee voted last week, with the White House's blessing, to send to the full Senate, for its consideration, a reauthorised Patriot Act largely intact.

The debate within the committee had one comic (or tragic) moment. Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator for Illinois, attempted to amend the proposed Patriot Act reauthorisation with a provision that would have required law enforcement to demonstrate a terrorist connection before they could use the act's sweeping powers to wiretap or seize records. In arguing against Mr Durbin's effort, Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator for Minnesota, said his amendment was unnecessary since she felt that the bill, as proposed, already included protection enough. To make her case, she then went on to read aloud what she thought was the bill she favoured, concluding triumphantly that what she had read provided adequate safeguards. All well and good, except as Mr Durbin then pointed out, "you just read my amendment". Unabashed, Mrs Klobuchar voted against the Durbin amendment that she had just read aloud and praised. And this is how American laws are made!

Everyone knows about the US's annual aid package to Israel - a combined package of around US$3 billion (Dh11bn) in economic and foreign military assistance. That it is given up front (transferred immediately into a separate bank account, with interest going to Israel), without any US government oversight, is not so well known.

What also slips under the radar are several "add-ons" that go to the government of Israel as part of other appropriation bills passed by Congress. There are "add-ons": that support Israeli foreign aid projects in Africa, arid land research, support for Israeli hospitals and universities, refugee resettlement in Israel (no, not for Palestinians) and so on. In the past few weeks, Congress passed out a few more of these generous "add-ons". On the small side, there was $700,000 to extend the "Ohio-Israel Agricultural Institute" and $2 million for a "US-Israeli energy co-operation agreement". On the larger side, there was: $202.4m for defence-related "research, development and testing" activity (mostly covering the cost of the Arrow missile defence programme). With more yet to come.

A Pew Research poll, out last month, shows that while the number of Americans who get their news from the internet has doubled since 2004, and newspaper readership showing a decline of 25 per cent, still a healthy 71 per cent of Americans get their news from television.

Despite the poll's finding that viewers give most of the networks high overall positive grades, almost two thirds of the public surveyed said the networks are "often inaccurate", with three quarters accusing them of bias. What exactly, you might well ask, do they like? Not surprisingly, Republicans favour Fox News Channel, giving it a 72 per cent favourable rating against only a 12 per cent unfavourable score. Democrats, on the other hand, give all the other networks overwhelmingly positive scores (eg CNN 75 per cent positive/ seven per cent negative).