July 21, 2005

House poised to reauthorize USA Patriot Act

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives,
ignoring protests from civil liberties groups and some
conservatives, moved on Thursday to renew the USA Patriot Act
giving the government unprecedented powers to investigate
suspected terrorists.

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 House was poised to reauthorize the act with some minor
changes designed to increase judicial and political oversight
of some of its most controversial provisions. Republicans said
the latest explosions in London showed how urgent and important
it was to renew the law.

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."

House Republicans agreed last week that this clause and
another allowing so-called roving wiretaps, which permits the
government to eavesdrop on suspects as they switch from phone
to phone, would be renewed for only 10 years instead of being
made permanent.

The Senate judiciary committee was working on its own
version of the act on Thursday, which included only four-year
renewals of these two clauses.

"Since its enactment, there have been zero, and I repeat
zero verified instances of civil liberty abuses," said Georgia
Republican Phil Gingrey, opening debate in the House.


But New York Democrat Louise Slaughter said many provisions
of the act had resulted in many abuses, although she gave no
examples. She and other Democrats complained that the
Republican leadership refused to allow debate on several of
their key amendments and seemed determined to ram the law
through on a party-line vote.

"This is an abuse of power by the Republican majority which
has deliberately and purposely chosen to stifle a full debate,"
said Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer.

A coalition of liberal and conservative civil liberties
groups, formed to oppose reauthorization of the law in its
current form, this week called on lawmakers not to rush to
reauthorize the bill without further debate.

"Certain sections of the law extend far beyond the mission
of protecting Americans from terrorism and violate ordinary
citizens' constitutional rights, especially the right to
privacy," said former Republican Rep. Bob Barr.

Leading opposition from the left, the American Civil
Liberties Union said the bill gave the FBI extraordinary power
to obtain personal records, search individuals' homes or
offices without their knowledge and to use a secret court to
obtain personal date on ordinary Americans.