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Senate Blocks the Renewal of Patriot Act

The rebuff to Bush comes amid news that he authorized wiretaps of Americans without court clearance. Fate of post-9/11 law is unclear.

December 17, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday blocked legislation to renew the Patriot Act, delivering a dramatic rebuff to President Bush that reflected rising concern over his treatment of civil liberties and privacy rights in the war on terrorism.

A Republican bid to end debate and consider a bill that the House easily approved this week fell seven votes short, leaving the fate of the anti-terrorism law unclear as Congress prepared to recess. Key provisions of the statute are to expire Dec. 31.

It was the second policy reversal on the terrorism front in as many days for the president, who on Thursday bowed to congressional pressure and agreed to accept a formal ban on cruel or inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The Bush administration previously had said such a restriction might undermine U.S. interrogation efforts.

And it coincided with a published report in the New York Times on Friday that Bush had authorized eavesdropping on hundreds of Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks without getting court approval. The report triggered bipartisan criticism that spilled over into the debate over the Patriot Act -- and might have hardened opposition to renewing the law.

The report, confirmed by the Los Angeles Times, describes a highly classified program of monitoring communications between Americans in the U.S. and individuals overseas who were suspected of having ties to terrorist networks. The program, run by the top-secret National Security Agency, was approved by Bush in the wake of Sept. 11; it is drawing criticism because intelligence agencies ordinarily must gain permission from special courts before they can listen in on conversations of U.S. citizens, domestically or overseas.

"If we needed a wake-up call about the need for adequate civil liberties protections to be written into our laws ... this is that wake-up call," said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), part of a bipartisan group of senators who ignited the filibuster fight.

"They are saying, 'Trust us, we are following the law.' Give me a break," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Across the country and across the political spectrum, no one is buying it anymore. There is no accountability. There is no oversight.... This is Big Brother run amok.

"With these new developments," Kennedy said, "we must take a step back and not rush the Patriot Act."

Four Republican senators broke ranks in the 53-46 vote. Sixty votes were needed to cut off debate and block a filibuster of the measure. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) subsequently changed his vote to oppose ending debate, in a maneuver that gives him the right to call for a second vote. That made the official vote 52 to 47.

Critics of the House-backed bill, which would extend 16 expiring provisions of the act, say it doesn't include adequate safeguards for civil liberties. They have proposed a three-month extension of the law in its current form to work out differences. But supporters of the law have said they might prefer to have it expire than subject it to future tinkering.

Frist indicated that he would try to corral more votes over the weekend before Congress adjourns in the next few days for the holidays. "The debate will continue on this very important bill," he said. "We will not see a short-term extension."

Friday's outcome was a blow to Bush and the Justice Department. The Patriot Act has become the administration's signature weapon in waging its fight against terrorism on the battlefield and in the courts, and it has enjoyed the support of most Americans. Many of the provisions have been used sparingly, and the changes being debated in some instances amounted to no more than fine-tuning.

Administration officials said Friday that some members of Congress were putting the nation at risk.

"These provisions of the USA Patriot Act are essential to our efforts in the war on terrorism, and their loss will damage our ability to prevent terrorist attacks," Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said. "Our nation cannot afford to let these important counter-terrorism tools lapse."

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Bush would not sign a plan introduced Monday by a bipartisan group to extend the act for three months while a compromise was worked out. "The president calls on the leaders of both parties to start putting the safety of the American people above politics," he said.

The Senate vote reflected what some lawmakers see as a deepening credibility gap with the administration and a growing frustration among Democrats and some Republicans that administration officials are not to be trusted.

"The scope of concern has been broadened," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group critical of the Patriot Act. Recent disclosures "are telling members of Congress that they need to be a lot less trusting of the administration and a lot more careful. There is a feeling that if you give the administration an inch, they will take a mile."

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