The Senate voted unanimously Friday to extend the Patriot Act, while placing curbs on surveillance by police.
Congress passed the legislation in the fevered weeks after Sept. 11 in an attempt to create a sweeping anti-terrorism tool that would help U.S. intelligence agencies working overseas better share information and give agencies within the United States new investigative powers.
The revised measure would make permanent 14 of the act’s 16 most controversial provisions and extend two others. The act would have expired in December.
It would extend for four years a provision that allows federal agents to obtain warrants for books, documents and other items from hospitals, businesses, libraries and bookstores, among other facilities.
Supporting the Senate’s changes, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: “We know that there are those already in our country or trying to enter our country who would do us grievous injury and harm unless we can stop them, and to stop them, we must find them first -- before they act, not after they act.”
She said the Senate’s changes “help ensure that these key provisions are used responsibly, in a focused and effective manner, and against our nation’s enemies, not against ordinary Americans. They provide critical additional civil liberties protections, without sacrificing the safety of Americans.”
The revised measure would allow agents to use warrants to confiscate unopened voice mail, get search warrants that are valid nationwide rather than just in a specified location aimed at an identified suspect or targeted at a specific telephone, and share foreign intelligence from surveillance and wiretaps. This provision would expire in four years.
Under the changes in the Senate bill, a judge would have to determine that law enforcement requests to monitor any telephone, cellphone or computer used by a suspect were relevant to a national security investigation.
It would require the government to demonstrate that a request for records from libraries and other facilities was pertinent to its investigation and that the documents were linked to a suspect or to someone in contact with the suspect. In the current law, the government must only certify that it is seeking records for an investigation.
The bill would require the FBI director or deputy director to approve efforts to obtain medical records, library reading lists or bookstore sales records.
It would also limit secret searches by the government. Currently, federal agents may search a home or office and confiscate materials without notifying the suspect. In the rewritten measure, the government would be required to notify a suspect within seven days that the search had been conducted.
The House has passed its own version. The two must be reconciled, setting the stage for renewed debate over how to empower law enforcement agencies to pursue terrorists without trampling civil liberties -- a delicate balancing act that has bedeviled the administration repeatedly since September 2001.