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Senators To Holder: Declassify ‘Secret Interpretation’ Of The Patriot Act

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President Bush signs the USA Patriot and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2005, Thursday, March 9, 2006, in the East Room at the White House in Washington. After a long battle with Congress that went down to the wire Bush signed a renewal of the USA Patriot Act, a day before 16 major provisions of the old law expire.

CREDIT: AP Photo / Ron Edmonds

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have penned a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the Department of Justice to make available the administration's “secret interpretation” of the Patriot Act that broadly expands domestic surveillance.

The controversial Patriot Act, passed by the Bush Administration after 9/11, has been widely employed by the Obama administration. Recently, the Justice Department moved to dismiss two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits—filed by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union—which requested that the government release documents on how the law was being interpreted.

Wyden and Udall have access to the interpretation, but the document is classified, so they can only discuss it in general terms. The Justice Department's tacit position is that if the intelligence community's powers were made available, anti-terrorism activities would be compromised.

“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act,” reads the letter. “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn't know what its government thinks the law says.”

Wyden and Udall acknowledge that they believe it is the prerogative of the government to keep information secret as it pertains to national security, even in a democratic society, but they criticize Holder for “arbitrarily” keeping information from public view.

And while the secret interpretation of the Patriot Act has been made available to Congress, Wyden and Udall assert that those documents are so highly classified that most members of Congress have no staff cleared to read them. And they assert that almost no members of Congress actually understand the secret interpretation.

“As a result, we can state with confidence that most of our colleagues in the House and Senate are unfamiliar with these documents, and that many of them would be surprised and angry to learn how the Patriot Act has been interpreted in secret,” they wrote.

The Obama administration has drawn fire for expanding the powers of the intelligence community, fighting against accountability in the War on Terror, and promoting the doctrine that the United States should be able to assassinate Americans abroad—all in an anti-transparency trend that met with significant backlash from progressives when similar policies were promoted by the Bush administration.

Jon Christian is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Christian.

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