Senate Blocks the Renewal of Patriot Act

Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Friday blocked legislation to renew the Patriot Act, delivering a dramatic rebuff to President Bush that reflected rising concern over his treatment of civil liberties and privacy rights in the war on terrorism.

A Republican bid to end debate and consider a bill that the House easily approved this week fell seven votes short, leaving the fate of the anti-terrorism law unclear as Congress prepared to recess. Key provisions of the statute are to expire Dec. 31.

It was the second policy reversal on the terrorism front in as many days for the president, who on Thursday bowed to congressional pressure and agreed to accept a formal ban on cruel or inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The Bush administration previously had said such a restriction might undermine U.S. interrogation efforts.

And it coincided with a published report in the New York Times on Friday that Bush had authorized eavesdropping on hundreds of Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks without getting court approval. The report triggered bipartisan criticism that spilled over into the debate over the Patriot Act -- and might have hardened opposition to renewing the law.

The report, confirmed by the Los Angeles Times, describes a highly classified program of monitoring communications between Americans in the U.S. and individuals overseas who were suspected of having ties to terrorist networks. The program, run by the top-secret National Security Agency, was approved by Bush in the wake of Sept. 11; it is drawing criticism because intelligence agencies ordinarily must gain permission from special courts before they can listen in on conversations of U.S. citizens, domestically or overseas.


“If we needed a wake-up call about the need for adequate civil liberties protections to be written into our laws ... this is that wake-up call,” said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), part of a bipartisan group of senators who ignited the filibuster fight.

“They are saying, ‘Trust us, we are following the law.’ Give me a break,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Across the country and across the political spectrum, no one is buying it anymore. There is no accountability. There is no oversight.... This is Big Brother run amok.

“With these new developments,” Kennedy said, “we must take a step back and not rush the Patriot Act.”

Four Republican senators broke ranks in the 53-46 vote. Sixty votes were needed to cut off debate and block a filibuster of the measure. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) subsequently changed his vote to oppose ending debate, in a maneuver that gives him the right to call for a second vote. That made the official vote 52 to 47.

Critics of the House-backed bill, which would extend 16 expiring provisions of the act, say it doesn’t include adequate safeguards for civil liberties. They have proposed a three-month extension of the law in its current form to work out differences. But supporters of the law have said they might prefer to have it expire than subject it to future tinkering.

Frist indicated that he would try to corral more votes over the weekend before Congress adjourns in the next few days for the holidays. “The debate will continue on this very important bill,” he said. “We will not see a short-term extension.”

Friday’s outcome was a blow to Bush and the Justice Department. The Patriot Act has become the administration’s signature weapon in waging its fight against terrorism on the battlefield and in the courts, and it has enjoyed the support of most Americans. Many of the provisions have been used sparingly, and the changes being debated in some instances amounted to no more than fine-tuning.

Administration officials said Friday that some members of Congress were putting the nation at risk.

“These provisions of the USA Patriot Act are essential to our efforts in the war on terrorism, and their loss will damage our ability to prevent terrorist attacks,” Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said. “Our nation cannot afford to let these important counter-terrorism tools lapse.”

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Bush would not sign a plan introduced Monday by a bipartisan group to extend the act for three months while a compromise was worked out. “The president calls on the leaders of both parties to start putting the safety of the American people above politics,” he said.

The Senate vote reflected what some lawmakers see as a deepening credibility gap with the administration and a growing frustration among Democrats and some Republicans that administration officials are not to be trusted.

“The scope of concern has been broadened,” said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group critical of the Patriot Act. Recent disclosures “are telling members of Congress that they need to be a lot less trusting of the administration and a lot more careful. There is a feeling that if you give the administration an inch, they will take a mile.”

One expiring provision would make permanent the ability of intelligence agents and prosecutors to share information, which officials have said has been crucial to rooting out and prosecuting suspected terrorists.

If the law is not renewed, “the wall goes right back up again on Jan. 1. Is that what we want?” asked Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “God forbid that there be a terrorist attack that could have been prevented by the Patriot Act after it has expired.”

But Senate Democratic and Republican foes of renewal denied that they were trying to kill the act, saying it was the administration that was playing politics.

“None of us wants it to expire, and those who threaten to let it expire rather than fix it are playing a dangerous game,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Wisconsin Democrat Russell D. Feingold said the Republican leadership would bear responsibility if the law expired. “That would only happen if the proponents block alternative reauthorization that can easily pass,” he said. “Now is not the time for brinkmanship or threats.”

Though officials said a failure to renew the Patriot Act would be ominous, the effect would be unclear. Investigators would still be able to use their expanded powers to complete ongoing probes. Moreover, despite Republican claims, some believe that prosecutors and intelligence officials would still be able to share information, because of a 2002 court decision.

The renewal legislation passed by the House would make permanent 14 of 16 sections of the law. Two of the most controversial sections -- authorizing investigators to use wiretaps to monitor multiple phones and to use secret warrants to obtain business records, including ones from bookstores and libraries -- would expire in four years unless Congress renewed them.

Critics are seeking changes to the act that would require the government to establish a closer connection between records requests and terrorism. They also say the law lacks a meaningful opportunity for targets to challenge the requests in court.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), an administration critic, said the new disclosures had influenced his vote.

“I went to bed undecided. But today’s revelation ... is shocking,” Schumer said. “If this government will discard a law that has worked well for over 30 years without a whit of discussion or notice, then for sure we better be certain that we have safeguards on that government.”

Counting Frist, 51 Republicans and two Democrats -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota -- voted in favor of the renewal legislation. Four Republicans voted against it: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry E. Craig of Idaho.