WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress was poised to send President Bush a renewal of the Patriot Act yesterday night after months of bitter fighting, authorizing law enforcement to keep its anti-terror tools but with some new curbs on government prying.
A final House vote and Bush’s signature would make 14 provisions of the 2001 law permanent before they expired on March 10. Two other provisions would have expired in four years.
A two-month Senate filibuster fueled by the revelation that Bush had authorized secret, warrantless wiretapping forced Congress to postpone the original Dec. 31 expiration deadline – twice. The standoff forced the White House to accept some new restrictions on information gathering in terrorism investigations.
Adding those protections gave the legislation enough support to pass the Senate overwhelmingly.
During a push for passage in December, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the monitoring and investigating authorized by the act had helped prevent specific planned attacks.
“The tools of the Patriot Act have been extremely valuable in allowing us to deter and prevent attacks, to prosecute terrorism and to prosecute other kinds of crimes,” Gonzales said.
“Intense congressional and public scrutiny has not produced a single substantiated claim that the Patriot has been misused to violate Americans’ civil liberties,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said yesterday. “Opponents of the legislation have relied upon exaggeration and hyperbole to distort a demonstrated record of accomplishment and success.”
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) the law’s chief critic, said the new protections for Americans are so modest they are almost meaningless. And the bill’s chief Senate author, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has introduced a new bill “to provide extra protections that better comport with my sensitivity of civil rights.”
For now, Bush will be signing a package on which both chambers of Congress and the president can agree.
The package renews 16 expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain “tangible items” like business records, including those from libraries and bookstores, for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.
Other provisions would clarify that foreign intelligence or counterintelligence officers should share information obtained as part of a criminal investigation with counterparts in domestic law enforcement agencies.
Forced by Feingold’s filibuster, Congress and the White House have agreed to new curbs on the Patriot Act’s powers.
These restrictions would:
Give recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
Eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
Clarify that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.