Wednesday, March 08, 2006

House approves safeguards to Patriot Act

House approves safeguards to Patriot Act
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A White House-backed bill to bolster protection of civil liberties under the anti-terror USA Patriot Act won final congressional approval on Tuesday from the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 280-138 vote followed Senate approval last week of the bill and a related House-passed measure to renew the 2001 Patriot Act, a centerpiece in President George W. Bush's war on terrorism.

Bush intends to sign both into law.

Most Democrats in the Republican-led House opposed the measure to increase safeguards of civil liberties, charging it was woefully inadequate.

Enacted shortly after the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act expanded the power of federal authorities to obtain private records, conduct wiretaps and searches and share information.

With 16 provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire on Friday, the bill to renew the law would make 14 of them permanent and extend two others by four years.

"This bill will allow our law enforcement and intelligence community officials to continue using the same tools against terrorists that they've been using for years against drug dealers and other criminals," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "The president looks forward to signing the bill into law."

Renewal legislation had been blocked in the Senate for months by Democrats and a handful of Republicans who demanded greater safeguards of civil liberties.

But last month the White House drafted with four Senate Republicans what became a compromise bill, which was approved last week by the Senate and on Tuesday by the House.

Debate over the act's renewal pitted critics who said it has infringed on basic rights against supporters who argued it was essential to protect America against further attacks.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, led the opposition to the bill to bolster civil liberties safeguards, saying it was insufficient.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat agreed, charging that the legislation "offers only a superficial reform that will have little if any impact on safeguarding our civil liberties."

But Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, led the charge to approve the bill and argued that critics of the Patriot Act should back it, too.

"If you are for more civil liberties protections in the Patriot Act, vote for this bill," Sensenbrenner said.

One change would clarify that traditional libraries would not be subjected to federal subpoenas issued without the approval of a judge.

Another would remove a proposed requirement that recipients of such subpoenas provide the FBI with the names of their lawyers.

A third would allow individuals to challenge gag orders when they have been subpoenaed to produce personal information. But they would have to wait a year to do so.

Critics complain it is unfair to force a person to wait a year to file a challenge and said other changes were also needed to better protect law-abiding citizens.

Among the additional revisions already being pushed in the Senate for consideration later this year is one that would require the government to notify targets of "sneak-and-peek" searches within seven days.