WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress on Thursday passed a four-year
extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct
roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. Votes taken in rapid
succession in the Senate and House came after lawmakers rejected
attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that
individual liberties are not abused.
Following the 250-153 evening vote in the House, the legislation
to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities headed for the
president's signature with only hours to go before the provisions
expire at midnight.
With Obama currently in France, the White House said the
president would use an autopen machine that holds a pen and signs
his actual signature. It is only used with proper authorization of
the president. Minutes before the midnight deadline, the White
House said Obama had signed the bill.
A short-term expiration would not interrupt ongoing operations
but would bar the government from seeking warrants for new
Congress bumped up against the deadline mainly because of the
stubborn resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul of Kentucky, who saw the terrorist-hunting powers as an abuse of privacy rights. Paul held up the final vote for several days
while he demanded a chance to change the bill to diminish the
government's ability to monitor individual actions. The bill passed
the Senate 72-23.
The measure would add four years to the legal life of roving
wiretaps - those authorized for a person rather than a
communications line or device - of court-ordered searches of
business records and of surveillance of non-American "lone wolf"
suspects without confirmed ties to terrorist groups.
The roving wiretaps and access to business records are small
parts of the USA Patriot Act enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks. But unlike most of the act, which is permanent law, those
provisions must be renewed periodically because of concerns that
they could be used to violate privacy rights. The same applies to
the "lone wolf" provision, which was part of a 2004 intelligence
Paul argued that in the rush to meet the terrorist threat in 2001 Congress enacted a Patriot Act that tramples on individual
liberties. He had some backing from liberal Democrats and civil
liberties groups who have long contended the law gives the
government authority to spy on innocent citizens.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he voted for the act when he was
a House member in 2001 "while ground zero was still burning." But
"I soon realized it gave too much power to government without
enough judicial and congressional oversight."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the provision on collecting
business records can expose law-abiding citizens to government
scrutiny. "If we cannot limit investigations to terrorism or other
nefarious activities, where do they end?" he asked.
"The Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by
law enforcement to invade Americans' privacy and violate their
constitutional rights," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU
Washington legislative office.
Still, coming just a month after intelligence and military
forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was little
appetite for tampering with the terrorism-fighting tools. These
tools, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky,
"have kept us safe for nearly a decade and Americans today should
be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will
Intelligence officials have denied improper use of surveillance
tools, and this week both FBI Director Robert Mueller and Director
of National Intelligence James Clapper sent letters to
congressional leaders warning of serious national security
consequences if the provisions were allowed to lapse.
The Obama administration says that without the three authorities
the FBI might not be able to obtain information on terrorist
plotting inside the U.S. and that a terrorist who communicates
using different cell phones and email accounts could escape timely
"When the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, we would be giving
terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country,
undetected," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate
floor Wednesday. In unusually personal criticism of a fellow
senator, he warned that Paul, by blocking swift passage of the
bill, "is threatening to take away the best tools we have for
The nation itself is divided over the Patriot Act, as reflected
in a Pew Research Center poll last February, before the killing of
bin Laden, that found that 34 percent felt the law "goes too far
and poses a threat to civil liberties. Some 42 percent considered
it "a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists."
That was a slight turnaround from 2004 when 39 percent thought it
went too far and 33 percent said it was necessary.
Paul, after complaining that Reid's remarks were "personally
insulting," asked whether the nation "should have some rules that
say before they come into your house, before they go into your
banking records, that a judge should be asked for permission, that
there should be judicial review? Do we want a lawless land?"
Paul agreed to let the bill go forward after he was given a vote
on two amendments to rein in government surveillance powers. Both
were soundly defeated. The more controversial, an amendment that
would have restricted powers to obtain gun records in terrorist
investigations, was defeated 85-10 after lawmakers received a
letter from the National Rifle Association stating that it was not
taking a position on the measure.
According to a senior Justice Department national security
official testifying to Congress last March, the government has
sought roving wiretap authority in about 20 cases a year between
2001 and 2010 and has sought warrants for business records less
than 40 times a year, on average. The government has yet to use the
lone wolf authority.
But the ACLU also points out that court approvals for business
record access jumped from 21 in 2009 to 96 last year, and the
organization contends the Patriot Act has blurred the line between
investigations of actual terrorists and those not suspected of
doing anything wrong.
Two Democratic critics of the Patriot Act, Sen. Ron Wyden of
Oregon and Udall of Colorado, on Thursday extracted a promise from
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.,
that she would hold hearings with intelligence and law enforcement
officials on how the law is being carried out.
Wyden says that while there are numerous interpretations of how
the Patriot Act works, the official government interpretation of
the law remains classified. "A significant gap has developed now
between what the public thinks the law says and what the government
secretly claims it says," Wyden said.