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Senators Oppose Extending Patriot Act

A bipartisan group calls for more changes, saying the latest version doesn't protect the innocent.

November 18, 2005|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of half a dozen senators slammed the brakes Thursday on efforts to extend the life of the Patriot Act, charging that a compromise being debated in a conference committee didn't do enough "to protect innocent people from unnecessary and intrusive government surveillance."

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, three Republicans joined three Democrats in describing the bill as unacceptable. They added that if further changes were not made, "we will work to stop this bill from becoming law."

They issued their challenge after conference negotiators had hammered out a compromise to make permanent most provisions of the Patriot Act, enacted shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to give the Justice Department broad new tools to fight terrorism. The statute is set to expire Dec. 31, and lawmakers are scrambling to reauthorize it before leaving for Thanksgiving.

Officials on both the House and Senate side said that the debate was in a holding pattern as the conferees tried to work toward an agreement that would get the six out of 10 votes needed to move the bill back to the House and Senate for separate votes. Once that happens, it is not possible to amend the bill again.

The conference report would make 14 of the law's 16 provisions permanent and would add seven-year expiration dates for one provision that gives the FBI access to personal and business information -- known as the "library provision" -- and another that allows it to wiretap all of a suspect's telecommunications.

The critics are Republicans Larry E. Craig of Idaho, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; and Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

The Patriot Act broke down barriers that restricted the exchange of information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but critics said it allowed the government too much leeway to probe into citizens' lives.

In July, the Senate passed a version of the bill with strong bipartisan support that put greater limits on Patriot Act powers than the House version, which the conference bill more closely resembles, said officials close to the negotiations. The White House reportedly prefers the House version.

"The conference is destroying the good work done in the Senate to fix the legislation," said Feingold, who expects a showdown over the issue. The Wisconsin senator said the original Patriot Act was flawed because there was so little time to consider its ramifications in the rush to pass the law after Sept. 11.

"Those excuses are gone now," Feingold said, arguing that there was time to find a balance between security needs and protecting civil rights.

The conference bill does limit some of the most controversial provisions, including the so-called library provision, which allows people to contact a lawyer and challenge requests for information in court.

But critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union say the limits won't offer much protection in practice.

"You're in front of a court where the government has the ability to issue secret information you can't see, and the standard for issuing the order is so broad it's hard to see how the government could not meet it," said Timothy Edgar, a national security policy counsel with the ACLU.

The Senate bill had required that the library provision orders be issued only if the government can show a connection between the documents being sought and a suspected terrorist or spy. The conference report requires only that the orders show reasonable grounds to believe that the records being sought are relevant, a standard that the senators said would "allow government fishing expeditions."

The Patriot Act also allows the government to search homes and businesses secretly under orders dubbed "sneak and peek" warrants. The conference report requires the government to notify its target within 30 days after a search, and allows for the notification period to be extended, compared with the Senate's seven-day limit.

The senators criticized the seven-year sunset provisions, which require two sections of the law to expire in 2012, as too long. They had recommended four, not the 10-year period the House pushed for.

And they complained that "national security letters," which the FBI can use without a court order to request records from banks, credit providers and communications companies, did not allow for adequate judicial review.

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