Truothout — House Beats Back Challenges to Patriot Act

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House Beats Back Challenges to Patriot Act
By Eric Lichtblau
The New York Times
Friday 22 July 2005
Washington – The House voted Thursday to extend permanently virtually all the major antiterrorism provisions of the USA Patriot Act after beating back efforts by Democrats and some Republicans to impose new restrictions on the government’s power to eavesdrop, conduct secret searches and demand library records.
The legislation, approved 257 to 171, would make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions in the law that were set to expire at the end of this year. The remaining two provisions – giving the government the power to demand business and library records and to conduct roving wiretaps – would have to be reconsidered by Congress in 10 years.
The House version of the legislation essentially leaves intact many of the central powers of the antiterrorism act that critics had sought to scale back, setting the stage for what could be difficult negotiations with the Senate, which is considering several very different bills to extend the government’s counterterrorism powers under the act.
One version, approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would impose greater restrictions on the government’s powers.
But a competing bill passed last month by the intelligence committee would broaden the government’s powers by allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to demand records in terrorism investigations without a judge’s order and to have sole discretion in monitoring the mail of some terrorism suspects. That proposal has the strong backing of the Bush administration.
In the House, a daylong debate about the Patriot Act turned into a referendum on the Bush administration’s antiterrorism policies, as lawmakers sought to calibrate the proper balance between protecting national security and ensuring civil liberties.
Thursday was the first time either chamber of Congress gave an up-or-down vote to the act as a whole since it was passed by overwhelming margins in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The law has become a lightning rod for critics who say it invites abuses and Big Brother-like tactics by the government.
With the reauthorization of the law a top priority for the Bush administration, Republicans offered a spirited defense of it during Thursday’s debate. They said that the government’s expanded surveillance and law enforcement powers had given it the tools it needed to track terrorists and that it had broken down the bureaucratic walls that bottled up investigations before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The debate became personal and angry at times.
Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, said critics were guilty of “false and irresponsible accusations” in attacking the act for its effect on civil liberties..
But critics of the law did not back down, charging that Republican leaders on the House Rules Committee had stifled debate by refusing to allow the full House to consider amendments that would have prevented the government from demanding library and bookstore records and would have forced a reconsideration of some surveillance provisions in 4 years instead of 10.
The provision preventing the government from reviewing library records passed the full House by a wide margin last month as an amendment to an appropriations bill, but the rules committee did not allow it to be considered Thursday. Representative Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who wrote the provision, said the committee’s refusal to bring the issue to a vote was “an outrageous abuse of power.”
Even some Republicans were alarmed by the exclusion of many amendments.
Representative C. L. Otter of Idaho said the action amounted to a “gag rule” that prevented a full debate on needed restrictions in the law. “I’m embarrassed to be on this side of the aisle,” Mr. Otter said.
The House approved nearly all of 20 amendments offered as part of the Patriot Act proposal.
Among them was one requiring the FBI director to personally approve demands for library and business records and another placing more limits on the bureau’s use of what are called national security letters to demand records without a judge’s approval. Under the amendment, anyone receiving such a letter could consult with a lawyer and seek to have a judge throw out the demand if compliance is deemed “unnecessary or oppressive.”
But critics of the Patriot Act called the amendments to the House bill cosmetic and far short of what they said was needed to ease growing public concerns about the government’s powers to fight terrorism.
“We think the House of Representatives missed an opportunity to enact real improvements to the Patriot Act, to enact real amendments that would protect our civil liberties and restore appropriate checks and balances,” said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been a leading critic of the law.
On the Senate side, the Judiciary Committee’s unanimous passage of its own bill came after several Democrats and Republicans successfully pushed to include a number of measures to require greater accountability to Congress on the use of the law, greater judicial oversight on government demands for business and library records and new restrictions on the use of “roving wiretaps” in monitoring suspects.
Staff members from both parties worked until 3 a.m. Thursday to hash out the compromise , officials said.
“This is not the bill that I, or anyone here, would have written if compromise were unnecessary,” said Senator Patrick J.