Senate Republicans Announce Deal for Renewal of Patriot Act
Senate Republicans who had been blocking a long-term extension of the Patriot Act announced Thursday that an agreement reached with the White House could allow reauthorization of the anti-terrorism law.
At an afternoon news conference, Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) said a bipartisan group of lawmakers had worked out changes in three areas where the legislators thought “we could do better to protect civil liberties while providing law enforcement the tools it needs.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan hailed the agreement, saying that the administration was “pleased that this important legislation is moving forward.”
Though some Democrats expressed support for the changes, others were critical, raising the prospect that a two-month filibuster of the act could continue.
“The few minor changes that the White House agreed to do not address the major problems with the Patriot Act that a bipartisan coalition has been trying to fix for the past several years,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis). “I will continue to strongly oppose and use every option at my disposal to stop any reauthorization of the Patriot Act that does not protect the rights and freedoms of law-abiding Americans.”
Enacted shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act broke down barriers between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, giving each new powers to collect information. Lawmakers and civil liberties groups objected to provisions that included secret wiretaps and searches, saying they allowed the government to intrude too easily and too far into citizens’ lives.
When the Patriot Act expired at the end of 2005, Congress resorted to passing short-term extensions while negotiations over its reauthorization took place.
Sununu made his announcement accompanied by Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Although the lawmakers acknowledged that they did not get everything they wanted, they said the compromise was an improvement over the version that emerged after House and Senate negotiators met in conference in November.
Those negotiations produced legislation that would have made permanent 14 of the Patriot Act’s 16 provisions, prompting opponents to charge that the conference bill failed “to protect innocent people from unnecessary and intrusive government surveillance” and to fight against the act’s reauthorization.
The changes announced Thursday focus largely on Section 215 orders, known as National Security Letters, a powerful type of subpoena that comes with a gag order forbidding recipients to say they have received it.
Lawmakers also reached a compromise on the act’s so-called “library provision,” which requires libraries, businesses or medical offices to hand over individual records to law enforcement officials.
One change, Sununu said, establishes that libraries functioning in their traditional role will no longer be subject to National Security Letters. He said the definition “traditional role” included lending digital books and providing patrons with access to the Internet.
Libraries that act as an Internet service provider, instead of simply giving people access to the Internet, would still be subject to National Security Letters.
Critics pointed out that in other respects, little has changed.
“This deal does not prevent the government from obtaining the library, medical and other sensitive business records of people with no link to suspected terrorists,” Feingold said in a statement. “The records just have to be ‘relevant’ to a terrorist investigation, which is not adequate protection against a fishing expedition.”
The negotiated changes also remove a requirement that recipients of a National Security Letter give the FBI the name of any attorney they consult about the subpoena. And, for the first time, recipients of the letters will be allowed to challenge the gag order that accompanies them, though they can only do that after a year has passed.
“We’ve always said that you ought to allow citizens to appeal that [gag order] before a judge,” said Sununu. “We suggested a 90-day waiting period. This has a one-year waiting period, but it’s important to have the process and the principle in place.”
In order to successfully challenge a gag order, recipients of a National Security Letter would have to prove the government acted in bad faith.
Craig emphasized that the provisions concerning the National Security Letters would expire after four years unless they were renewed. “We’ve been most concerned about [Section] 215. We don’t believe the protections are there the way they need to be,” he said.
Craig said that there would be no additional changes, and that he was optimistic that the compromise version could pass.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would support the agreement, telling reporters outside the Senate chamber: “I’m going to vote for it. There are three changes, they are substantive changes.... I think it’s important to get this done, and there is a four-year sunset, so we’ll be able to watch it closely.”
President Bush has vigorously defended the Patriot Act and the administration’s domestic spying program, declaring during his Jan. 31 State of the Union address that “the enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us.”
The Senate announcement came a few hours after Bush generally defended the administration’s surveillance efforts. In a speech at the National Guard Memorial Building, the president said that his anti-terrorism strategy helped foil a 2002 terrorist plot to attack Los Angeles.