Orin Kerr has the distinction of being one of the rare participants in the Patriot Act debate who actually knows what he’s talking about (he was a Justice Department lawyer from 1998-2001 and has testified before Congress more than once on Patriot Act arcana). He writes:
The dirty little secret about the Patriot Act is that only about 3% of the Act is controversial, and only about a third of that 3% is going to expire on December 31st. Further, much of the reauthorization actually puts new limits on a number of the controversial non-sunsetting provisions, and some of the sunsetting provisions increased privacy protections. As a result, it’s not immediately obvious to me whether we’ll have greater civil liberties on January 1, 2006 if the Patriot Act is reauthorized or if it is allowed to expire. (To be fair, though, I’d have to run through the effect of every expiring section and all of the reauthorization language to check this – maybe I would feel differently if I did.)
…What will happen in the end? My hope is that the Bush Administration will agree to renegotiate some of the more controversial provisions, addressing some of the opponents’ concerns and reaching a compromise that reflects the current political landscape. My sense is that there is still lots of ready room for compromise; for example, the restrictions on sneak-and-peek warrants in the reauthorization are really pretty weak. They can (and should) be strengthened, and it seems unlikely that strengthening them would impact any terrorism cases.
So relax, everyone: This is for the most part a political kabuki dance, not a life or death/liberty or tyranny struggle.