Republicans agree to limits on Patriot Act
By Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans beat a slight retreat on
Wednesday on the USA Patriot Act, agreeing that some
controversial provisions in the terrorism-fighting law should
be authorized for a limited period rather than being made
Sixteen provisions of the 2001 law, hastily enacted in
response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington,
are due to expire at the end of this year unless renewed by
Congress. President Bush has repeatedly called on lawmakers to
make the entire law permanent.
The act allowed expanded surveillance of terror suspects
and gave the government the ability to go to a secret court to
seize the personal records of suspects from bookstores,
libraries, businesses, hospitals and other organizations — the
so-called “library clause.”
Bills renewing the clauses due to expire were considered
Wednesday by the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen
Specter and California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein produced
their own bipartisan version. The three bills differed in key
respects and will need to be reconciled before passage.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner
introduced a bill to make the entire law permanent. He said
last week’s bomb attacks in London made it even more urgent to
reauthorize the legislation.
“The security of the American people should not be subject
to arbitrary expiration dates,” said Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin
However, during Judiciary Committee debate on Wednesday,
California Rep. Dan Lungren suggested including 10-year “sunset
provisions” to two key clauses, meaning they would need to be
reauthorized by Congress once again in 2015.
That amendment was eventually adopted 26-2, with all but
one Republican and all but one Democrat supporting it.
Sensenbrenner hopes to bring the bill to the full House for
approval some time next week.
Democrats had pushed for even shorter time limits on the
key clauses. Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott offered an amendment
calling for reauthorization in 2009. When that was defeated
along party lines, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler offered another
for reauthorization in 2011. That too was defeated.
“Ten years is too long. Lots of things can happen in 10
years,” Nadler said. “The liberties of Americans are worth
focusing on a lot more than every 10 years.”
Under the Lungren amendment, the two clauses that would not
be permanent were the library clause and another dealing with
so-called roving wiretaps, which allows the government to
eavesdrop on suspects as they switch from phone to phone.
Previously, law enforcement agents had to get a judge’s
permission for each phone number they wanted to monitor.
The House Intelligence Committee, which also has
jurisdiction over the bill, approved it on Wednesday after
agreeing to a five-year sunset provision on a clause that makes
it easier for the government to monitor “lone wolf” suspects
unaffiliated with a terrorist group or country.
The Specter-Feinstein bill in the Senate would extend all
three of these sections only until the end of 2009 and add
several new restrictions on their use. For example, the
director or deputy director of the FBI would need to approve
any orders concerning library records, book sales, firearms
sales or medical records.
“This is a balanced bill. The times call for this bill,”
American Civil Liberties Union senior counsel Lisa Graves
said she was encouraged by the day’s developments but the bill
still needed work.
“The fact that there was a bipartisan vote not to make some
key provisions permanent was a small step forward but there
still need to be important fixes to protect civil liberties,”