Renewal of Patriot Act Passes Senate
After months of hard-fought negotiations, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to renew expiring portions of the Patriot Act after adding new privacy protections to the controversial law spawned by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Senators voted, 89 to 10, to make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions originally set to expire at the end of 2005. The other two, which govern secret government records searches, were modified and reauthorized for four years.
Many supporters of the bill said it marked an improvement over the original Patriot Act, which was designed to help thwart terrorist plots by expanding the government’s investigative powers and breaking down the traditional wall of separation between domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
President Bush praised the Senate’s action. “The terrorists have not lost the will or the ability to attack us,” he said in a statement from India. “The Patriot Act is vital to the war on terror and defending our citizens against a ruthless enemy.”
But many senators who voted for the renewal said that though the bill they approved was better than the original, it fell short of offering all the civil liberties protections they had sought.
“Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But the version of the Patriot Act we will soon reauthorize is a vast improvement over the law we passed hastily in 2001.”
The vote began the denouement of a difficult chapter of partisan brinkmanship, with the two houses of Congress -- both Republican-controlled -- in sharp disagreement for months over how to protect against terrorists and, at the same time, preserve civil liberties.
It was a prized, if bittersweet, victory for the Bush administration, which won the anti-terrorism law six weeks after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The administration’s credibility has been questioned after recent revelations that it bypassed laws, including the Patriot Act, to conduct electronic surveillance on people in the U.S. without obtaining court orders.
“In 2001, we were viciously attacked by terrorists who care nothing for American freedoms and American values,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who led a two-month filibuster to block passage of the renewal bill. “Without freedom, we are not America. If we don’t preserve our liberties, we cannot win this war, no matter how many terrorists we capture or kill.”
Feingold’s filibuster, which was supported by a handful of libertarian-minded Republicans, forced Congress to extend the law twice while negotiations continued between the two branches of Congress and the White House. On Wednesday, the Senate passed a related bill, negotiated by Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), that effectively amended the reauthorization measure to add a few additional protections.
In Thursday’s vote, nine Democrats and one independent opposed the renewal. California’s two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for it.
The bill now goes to the House, which is to act on it next week. That chamber has approved the general measure, but it will vote again to accommodate the final changes put in by the Senate. Both pieces of legislation are expected to be signed by the president before the Patriot Act expires March 10.
The two most controversial provisions of the law concern the government’s ability to demand access to private records -- one known as the library provision and the second concerning subpoenas called national security letters.
The library provision permits the government to obtain private records held by businesses, financial institutions, medical offices and other institutions as long as officials assert that the records are needed for an “authorized” investigation.
Under the protections included in the final version of the bill, those institutions would be able to challenge whether the government acted in bad faith in demanding the records, although they would not be able to require the government to provide evidence connecting the demand to terrorist suspects.
In addition, the provision would apply to libraries only when they were acting as an Internet service provider, not in their traditional role of offering reading materials or basic Internet access.
The original provision on national security letters -- a subpoena issued by a government agency instead of a court -- forbids recipients to acknowledge they have received such a demand. Under the final version of the bill, recipients would be able to consult a lawyer without first informing law enforcement authorities.
Opponents described those changes as paltry improvements and vowed that debate over the Patriot Act would continue. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has reintroduced a bill containing greater protections that was adopted unanimously by the Senate last summer but rejected by the House.
“There is no doubt that constitutional freedoms will never be abolished in one fell swoop, for the American people cherish their freedoms and would not tolerate such a loss if they could perceive it,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who joined Feingold in leading the opposition to the bill. “But the erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault, but rather as a gradual, noxious creeping, cloaked in secrecy, and glossed over by reassurances of greater security.”
The legislation contains several other law enforcement measures. One, sponsored by Feinstein and aimed at restricting access to methamphetamine ingredients, would require pharmacies to sell nonprescription cold medicines from behind the counter.
A second would impose tougher sanctions, including the death penalty, for threats to port security.
“For me the bill was doubly important,” Feinstein said, “because the meth bill was on it -- and also the port security bill, which for the first time codifies as federal offenses certain post-9/11 crimes that can take place in and around port property and waterways.”
Feinstein said she believed the revised version of the Patriot Act would provide adequate civil liberties protections for the time being, but that she would support more debate and new legislation closer to the version approved in the Senate last summer.
“It’s not a dead issue,” Feinstein said after the vote. “We’ve got to keep an eagle eye out” on the government.