House reauthorizes USA Patriot Act
By Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The House of Representatives,
ignoring protests from civil liberties groups, renewed the USA
Patriot Act on Thursday mostly along party lines, to make
permanent the government’s unprecedented powers to investigate
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, who has repeatedly called on
lawmakers to make the entire law permanent, commended lawmakers
for approving the measure.
“The Patriot Act is a key part of our efforts to combat
terrorism and protect the American people, and the Congress
needs to send me a bill soon that renews the act without
weakening our ability to fight terror,” the president said in
The House reauthorized the act by 257-171 with several
changes designed to increase judicial and political oversight
of some of its most controversial provisions. In the
Republican-controlled chamber, 44 Democrats supported the bill
while 14 Republicans opposed it.
Republicans repeatedly argued throughout the 11-hour debate
that the latest explosions in London showed how urgent and
important it was to renew the law.
“Passage of the … act is vital to maintaining the
post-9/11 law enforcement and intelligence reforms that have
reduced America’s vulnerability to terrorist attack,” Wisconsin
Republican James Sensenbrenner told lawmakers.
Republicans also added a new provision to apply the federal
death penalty for terrorist offenses that resulted in death and
another establishing a new crime of narco-terrorism to punish
people using drug profits to aid terrorism. These offenders
will now face 20-year minimum prison sentences.
The original 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 –
perhaps the most contentious — 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 voted unanimously to
recommend its own version of the act on Thursday, which
included only four-year renewals of these two clauses. The full
Senate is expected to take its bill up in the fall.
The House also passed an amendment requiring the director
of the FBI to personally approve all requests for library or
bookstore records and a number of other amendments designed to
add civil liberty safeguards to the bill.
However, Democrats who mostly supported the original law in
2001, were not mollified and said the law still posed a
potentially grave threat to personal freedoms.
“The bill before us fails to assure accountability,” said
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Today, we are deciding
whether the government will be accountable to the people, to
the Congress and to the courts for the exercise of its power.”
Republicans said there had been no documented instances of
civil liberty abuses since the act was originally passed in
2001. However Democrats said the government had requested
individuals’ library records more than 200 times.
Democrats also complained that the Republican leadership
refused to allow debate on several of their key amendments and
opted instead 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.