Saturday, July 30, 2005

Senate Makes Permanent Nearly All Provisions of Patriot Act, With a Few Restrictions

The New York Times

Senate Makes Permanent Nearly All Provisions of Patriot Act, With a Few Restrictions

WASHINGTON, July 29 - The Senate voted unanimously on Friday to make permanent virtually all the main provisions of the law known as the USA Patriot Act, after Republican leaders agreed to include additional civil rights safeguards and to forestall any expansion of the government's counterterrorism powers.

The House passed a bill of its own last week that would also extend the law's surveillance and law enforcement powers, which the Bush administration considers critical to combating terrorism. While the House and Senate bills are not identical, the differences are modest enough that Congressional officials said they were confident that they could work out a compromise.

The Patriot Act has become a target of criticism since it was passed in the weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with more than 300 communities voicing formal concerns about what they see as its chilling effect on civil liberties. But many opponents of the law, as well as many supporters, said the Senate bill was an acceptable compromise after months of heated debate over the scope of the government's authority to track and eavesdrop on terror suspects.

Senate Republican leaders had been eager to win approval of their measure before leaving Washington for a monthlong recess. They rushed the bill to the Senate floor Friday evening after persuading Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, to sign on to the plan, Congressional officials said. The action came by unanimous consent as the Senate wrapped up its business.

Mr. Roberts had been pushing for changes that would have expanded the Patriot Act to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to demand records in terror investigations through administrative subpoenas, without a judge's order, and to have sole discretion in deciding whether to monitor the mail of terror suspects. He had argued that the changes would strengthen the F.B.I.'s ability to deter terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration had pressed for the expanded subpoena powers as well. But Congressional officials said that after several days of private discussions among Senate leaders, Senator Roberts agreed not to pursue the administrative subpoenas or other measures endorsed by the Intelligence Committee in order to ensure quick reauthorization of the Patriot Act in some form.

Senator Roberts "had a desire to move the bill, no matter how defective he thought it might be," said a senior Republican aide in the Senate who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations. But Republican officials said that the senator still planned to seek the expanded subpoena power for the F.B.I. through separate legislation, and that he had received assurances in this week's discussions that Republican leaders would back those efforts if and when he decided to revisit the issue.

The bill approved Friday by the Senate makes permanent 14 of the 16 antiterrorism provisions of the Patriot Act that were set to expire at the end of the year. The two remaining sections - particularly controversial provisions that allow the government to conduct roving wiretaps and to demand records from institutions like libraries - are to expire in four years unless Congress acts to reauthorize them.

The legislation also puts in place several new restrictions on the government's powers, including a higher standard of proof for the government in demanding library and business records, greater judicial oversight and increased reporting to Congress on antiterrorism operations, time restrictions on the use of secret searches, and limits on roving wiretaps. Civil rights advocates saw the new limits as welcome steps.

Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "We think this is a positive step and puts in place significant restrictions over the current law. It doesn't fully safeguard constitutional freedoms, but it's a significant improvement."

President Bush had pushed repeatedly for the quick reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and Congressional officials said Republican leaders wanted to get the bill approved before the recess to avoid a drawn-out debate in the fall that might have pitted the Judiciary Committee bill against Mr. Roberts's version.

"I don't think anyone wanted to be responsible for missing our deadline on an issue this critical," said a senior Republican aide on the Judiciary Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity because this week's negotiations were conducted in private.

While Mr. Roberts and others had pushed for greater F.B.I. power, the aide said, "I think they realized that it might not be worth the fight if you're probably not going to win anyway, and people much preferred a safe reauthorization now to a risky one later on."

Meanwhile, in a federal court decision released Friday involving the Patriot Act, a judge in Los Angeles ruled that portions of the law regarding the definition of "material support" to terrorism were too vague and thus unconstitutional.

Congress had tried to fix the problem by amending the language as part of last year's intelligence reform bill, after the same district judge, Audrey Collins, ruled twice that the wording raised constitutional problems. Judge Collins said in her latest ruling that the changes by Congress adequately clarified what constituted providing "personnel" to banned terrorist groups, but that the wording on providing "training" and other support remained "impermissibly vague."

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University who had argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the decision was an affirmation of Americans' right to support lawful, nonviolent causes associated with even those groups that the United States has banned. "This law is so sweeping that it makes it a crime for our clients to provide medical services to tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and to provide assistance in human rights advocacy to the Kurds in Turkey," Professor Cole said.

The Justice Department said it was pleased that the judge had ruled in its favor in four of the five claims over the material support law. The department said in a statement that "the judge's ruling affects only one small aspect of the Patriot Act" and that the law remains critical to fighting terrorism.