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Deal reached on Patriot Act, but criticism flares

Congressional GOP leaders are pressing for passage next week of a new Patriot Act to combat terrorism, but a Senate filibuster looms on a measure that critics say is a threat to individual liberties.
Senator Spector Discusses Patriot Act Reauthorization Deal
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., tells the press on Wednesday that two of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions will be extended for four years.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Congressional Republican leaders are pressing for passage next week of a new Patriot Act to combat terrorism, but a Senate filibuster looms on a measure that liberal and conservative critics alike say is a threat to individual liberties.

“Just as the Senate did four years ago, we should unite in a bipartisan way to support the Patriot Act, to stand up for freedom and against terror,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Thursday as GOP negotiators from the House and Senate sealed their White House-backed compromise.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying the measure would aid “in the detection, disruption and dismantling of terrorist cells before they strike.”

Key provisions cover the ability of law enforcement officials to gain access to a wealth of personal data, including library and medical records, as part of investigations into suspected terrorist activity.

Broadened wiretap powers
The measure provides a four-year extension of the government’s ability to conduct roving wiretaps — which may involve multiple phones — and to seek access to many of the personal records covered by the bill.

Also extended for four years is the power to wiretap “lone wolf” terrorists who may operate on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power. An earlier, pre-Thanksgiving stab at compromise had called for seven-year extensions of these provisions.

Yet another provision, which applies to all criminal cases, gives the government 30 days to provide notice that it has carried out a search warrant.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the final product as “not a perfect bill but a good one,” and credited the White House with helping bring the House and Senate negotiators together.

Feingold: 'This battle is not over'
But lawmakers in both parties attacked the measure. “This battle is not over,” said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who complained that the bill lacked “adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms.” He vowed to do everything he could, including a filibuster, to stop the bill from passing.

It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. While Republican officials seemed confident the bill would pass the House, it was not clear Thursday night that it could command the level of support needed for Senate passage as well.

Feingold was the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act, which passed in the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, four years later, lawmakers in both parties appear more willing to express their opposition, on grounds that the bill fails to protect privacy rights. Three Republican and three Democratic senators issued a statement calling for revisions to give law enforcement “the tools they need while providing safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.” The six included Republicans John Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry Craig of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, plus Feingold and fellow Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid intends to oppose the bill, based on what he has reviewed to date, according spokesman Jim Manley. He said the Nevada lawmaker needs to consult with fellow Democrats before deciding whether to join a filibuster.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced opposition to the bill, but also declined to say whether he would join Feingold.

White House officials signaled their satisfaction, and Specter has credited Vice President Dick Cheney with intervening this week to help bring the House and Senate together.

Additionally, some Republicans said that, purely in political terms, they relished the prospect of Senate Democrats mounting a last-ditch attempt to block the measure.

Mixed signals
The agreement capped weeks of fits and starts, and came after a day of confusion and mixed signals.

Specter held a late-morning news conference Thursday to hail the compromise and confidently predicted that the five other Senate Republican negotiators involved in talks with the House would back the deal.

But within a few hours, a House Judiciary Committee aide circulated an e-mail notice citing a “misrepresentation by Sen. Specter’s office” and saying the legislation was unlikely to be completed this week.

Several Republican officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose signatures were needed on official papers, had not yet given their approval.

By late afternoon, both men swung behind the bill. One official said that before giving their approval, the two senators wanted to know why the measure contained four-year extensions instead of the seven-year renewals in an earlier compromise — a change that Specter had been seeking in hopes of winning Leahy’s support.

These officials spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to provide details of private conversations.

Under the measure announced during the day, law enforcement officials could continue to obtain secret access to a variety of personal records from businesses, hospitals and other organizations, including libraries.

Access is obtained by order of a secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The recipient of the request for information is subject to a gag order that cannot be challenged in court, according to officials.

Specter said the draft legislation would, for the first time, require the law enforcement agent to present a judge with a “statement of fact” showing the request was relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation. Critics said other provisions rendered the requirement virtually meaningless.

On a second issue, relating to a National Security Letter, government investigators could continue to gain access to a more limited range of personal records without a court order of any kind.

The recipient of the letter — a bank, for example — would have the explicit right to challenge the government’s request in court, as well as the right to consult a lawyer without having to notify the FBI it had done so.