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Republicans Close to Forging Deal to Renew Patriot Act

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

WASHINGTON — Republican-led congressional negotiators said Wednesday that they hoped to reach an agreement as early as today to renew the expiring Patriot Act, but some lawmakers balked at the proposal, saying it failed to adequately protect the civil liberties of ordinary citizens caught up in terrorism investigations.

GOP leaders unveiled what they described as a draft agreement to extend the anti-terrorism law, and they expressed hope they would be able to bring the measure to a vote in the House and Senate this week. The agreement, while imposing new limits on the ability of the government to conduct certain investigations, does not include broader changes sought by critics.

The surfacing of a possible deal, struck in a conference of House and Senate members in close consultation with the White House, prompted a swift backlash: A bipartisan group of senators vowed to kill the measure before it reached the floors of Congress.

The clashing interests set the stage for a dramatic showdown over the law, key portions of which are to expire next month.

Enacted weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act gave the Justice Department and the FBI broad new powers to root out terrorist threats and to tear down legal barriers preventing sharing of information between law enforcement authorities and intelligence investigators. But it also triggered widespread opposition from groups across the political spectrum concerned that government was reaching too far into the private lives of individuals with no connection to terrorism.

Republicans said the draft they proposed would carefully balance national security and private interests.

It would put limits on the time agents can conduct certain searches without notifying the targets of the searches, and would create a system allowing companies whose records were requested -- such as financial institutions and Internet service providers -- to challenge the demands in court.

The draft would make permanent, with little or no change, 14 of the 16 provisions due to expire Dec. 31.

Two sections that have been the source of heated debate would be extended until 2012: one giving investigators access to a wide range of business records, including library and bookstore records, and one making it easier for agents to tap the phones of suspected terrorists. The draft includes new requirements that the Justice Department provide additional regular reports to Congress about how the law is being used.

But critics said the legislation did not go far enough and in some cases would leave citizens worse off.

Most of the provisions in the draft reflect a House bill that in general provided fewer protections than those afforded in the Senate version, they said. They said some of the changes were illusory, citing a proposal that would allow recipients of national security letters -- a kind of subpoena used to amass telephone and financial records -- to challenge the demand in court.

Under another provision of the legislation, however, the recipients of those requests would have little chance of success in court because of procedural advantages given to prosecutors.

Caroline Fredrickson, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said the ACLU, which strongly criticized the original law, also had questions about the draft.

"We are increasingly concerned that the bill will be something that will set us back further than the original Patriot Act that was passed in 2001," she said.

The draft also was attacked by a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), whose proposed changes to the law were ignored in the draft.

"The conference committee draft retreats significantly from the bipartisan consensus we reached in the Senate," the group said in a statement.

"It simply does not accomplish what we and many of our colleagues in the Senate believe is necessary -- a reauthorization bill that continues to provide law enforcement with the tools to investigate possible terrorist activity while making reasonable changes to the original law to protect innocent people from unnecessary and intrusive government surveillance."

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