One More Act for The Patriot Act
Congress tries to square civil liberties with the terror war
In the dark days that engulfed the nation after the 9/11 attacks, Congress moved with lightning speed and near unanimity to approve the U.S.A. Patriot Act and grant the federal government broad new investigative powers that then Attorney General John Ashcroft, the law's author, promised would help root out the terrorists living here.
Under the act, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors were given a bundle of new tools, from a revamped intelligence-sharing system and a raft of anti-money-laundering powers to roving, single-warrant wiretaps that make it easier to continuously track terrorism suspects who use networks of cellphones. But the new law also gave the feds a virtually free hand to secretly rummage through the records and homes of ordinary Americans, even those with no ties to suspected terrorists or spies.
Now, more than four years after President Bush signed into law the act's 1,000-plus antiterrorism measures, the long-running debate over whether the act compromises civil liberties has relegated 16 of the act's most controversial provisions to a kind of legal limbo. All 16 were designed to expedite the government's ability to conduct domestic searches, seizures, wiretaps, and electronic surveillance.
Expiration date. Because of civil liberties concerns, framers of the original Patriot Act designed those 16 provisions to expire at the end of 2005 to allow Congress to re-evaluate them. It was a White House priority last year to make the measures permanent, but that high-profile effort collapsed dramatically in December. After the New York Times reported that the president had secretly approved a potentially illegal program of domestic eavesdropping, Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans killed the reauthorization effort with a filibuster. At the last minute, Congress then reauthorized the 16 provisions in their previous form--but only through February 3.
Where to now? That's not exactly clear. The defeated bill was an amalgam of a bipartisan Senate measure that passed unanimously last July and contained clear limits on government surveillance and a House bill that had far fewer restrictions. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act and a leader in the push to expand surveillance restrictions, called the bill's death a victory and demanded tighter limits on domestic spying. But the administration and House Republican leaders were apoplectic. After Congress passed that temporary extension, the president denounced the filibuster as partisan politics that played into the hands of terrorists.
So everyone's angry, and the battle is about to be joined again. The administration is facing a large and unlikely assortment of interest groups--from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--which are demanding more limits on government intrusion (the public is more ambivalent, with polls showing support for minor modifications of the Patriot Act).
Despite the bombast on both sides, they actually agree on a number of changes that were proposed in the defeated legislation and are likely to appear in any new measure. The defeated bill would have provided for more oversight and public disclosure of orders issued by a special court established in 1978 to oversee requests by law enforcement agencies for surveillance of suspected foreign agents in the United States. And that bill also would have limited the government's ability to retain or disseminate information collected on citizens but found to be irrelevant.