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Patriot Act wins Senate OK despite misgivings
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to renew expiring portions of the USA Patriot Act after adding new privacy protections to the law motivated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Senators voted 89-10 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 extended for four years.
Many supporters of the bill said it marked an improvement over the original Patriot Act, which was designed to make it easier to thwart terrorist attacks by expanding the government's investigative powers and breaking down the wall between domestic law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
President Bush, who was visiting India, praised the Senate action: "The Patriot Act is vital to the war on terror and defending our citizens against a ruthless enemy."
But even many senators who voted for the renewal said that although 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.
The vote was 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 while preserving civil liberties.
Extending the Patriot Act
The Senate passed and sent to the House yesterday compromise legislation extending the USA Patriot Act, adding measures to address concerns about privacy, civil liberties and other provisions:
Subpoenas: Gives recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
Notification: Eliminates a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a national-security letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
Libraries: Clarifies that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.
Limitations: Puts a four-year expiration on Sections 206 and 215, which authorize roving wiretaps and permit secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries. Puts a new four-year expiration on the power to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists who may operate on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power.
Transit: Increases penalties for attacks against railroads and mass-transit systems.
Ports: Increases penalties for crime and terrorism at U.S. seaports.
Methamphetamine: Tightens restrictions on cold medications that can be cooked into methamphetamine and increases penalties on methamphetamine production and trafficking.
Presidential succession: Places the homeland-security secretary at No. 18 in the presidential line of succession, last on the list after the veterans-affairs secretary.
ATF head: Makes the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation.
The Associated Press
It was also a prized, if bittersweet, victory for the Bush administration, which won the anti-terrorism powers barely six weeks after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, only to see its credibility tarnished by recent revelations that it had bypassed laws, including the Patriot Act, to conduct electronic surveillance on people in the United States without obtaining court orders.
"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," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who led a two-month filibuster against the final version of the reauthorization bill.
Feingold's filibuster, a delaying tactic supported by a handful of libertarian-minded Republicans, forced Congress to extend the original act twice while negotiations continued among the two branches of Congress and the White House.
Earlier this week, the Senate passed a separate bill, negotiated by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., that effectively amended the reauthorization act to add a few additional protections.
Only 10 senators — nine Democrats and one independent — voted against the renewal: Feingold; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.; Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.
The House is expected to vote next week to adopt the Sununu compromise. Both pieces of legislation — the reauthorization and the Sununu bill with the final changes — are expected to be signed by the president before the second extension of the original Patriot Act expires March 10.
The two most controversial provisions of the act concern the government's ability to demand access to private records, one known as the library provision and the second concerning national-security letters.
The library provision permits the government to get secret court orders to search 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.
Among the protections added to the final version of the bill is the right of those institutions to challenge whether the government acted in bad faith in demanding the records, although they could not require the government to provide facts or evidence connecting the demand to terrorist suspects.
In addition, the provision would apply to libraries only when they are acting as an Internet service provider, not in their traditional role of lending reading materials.
The original provision on national-security letters — a kind of super-subpoena issued by a government agency instead of a court — forbids recipients to consult a lawyer about the demand or even to acknowledge they have received one.
Under the final version of the bill, recipients can consult a lawyer without first informing law-enforcement authorities.
Foes described those changes as paltry improvements and vowed 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 Byrd, the Senate's longest-serving member, 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 renewed legislation contains several other law-enforcement measures.
One, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and aimed at restricting access to the ingredients needed for manufacturing methamphetamine, 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.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company