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Patriot Act awaits Bush's signature

By The Associated Press

Editor's note: The Associated Press reported that President Bush on March 9 signed into law a renewal of the USA Patriot Act.

WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials get to keep their anti-terror tools, but with some new curbs, under the USA Patriot Act renewal passed by the House in a cliffhanger vote.

The 280-138 vote last night passed by just two votes more than needed under House rules requiring a two-thirds majority for legislation handled on an expedited basis.

The vote ended a monthslong battle over how to balance privacy rights against the need to defeat potential terrorists — a political struggle in which President Bush was forced to accept new restraints on law enforcement investigations.

Bush was expected to sign the legislation before 16 major provisions of the law, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, expire March 10.

“The president looks forward to signing the bill,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

In a sign of uncertainty over the vote’s outcome, the sponsor of the measure containing the new civil liberties, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., crossed the Capitol to lobby representatives on the House floor during yesterday’s 15-minute vote.

Despite the wafer-thin margin of victory, Republicans declared victory as they sought to polish their national security credentials this midterm election year, trying to balance a troubled war in Iraq and revelations that Bush had authorized secret wiretapping without warrants.

“I’m glad it made it. Now it’s behind us,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said after he voted for the renewal.

For some, congressional passage comes none too soon after a season of political combat that stalled the legislation and forced Congress to postpone the expiration date twice. Forced by a filibuster, Bush accepted new provisions that give people targeted in terrorism investigations stronger civil liberties protections. The Senate passed the reworked version overwhelmingly.

Republicans yesterday declared the legislative war won, saying the renewal of the act’s 16 provisions will help law enforcement prevent terrorists from striking.

“This legislation is a win for law enforcement, the war on drugs, and for communities and families across America,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in remarks prepared for today.

“Intense congressional and public scrutiny has not produced a single substantiated claim that the Patriot Act has been misused to violate Americans’ civil liberties,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. “Opponents of the legislation have relied upon exaggeration and hyperbole to distort a demonstrated record of accomplishment and success.”

But the debate over the balance between a strong war against terrorists and civil liberties protections is far from over.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on the domestic wiretapping program. Additionally, Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chief author of the Patriot Act renewal, has introduced a new measure “to provide extra protections that better comport with my sensitivity of civil rights.”

Despite its passage, the Patriot Act still has staunch congressional opponents who protested it by voting “no” even on the part of the legislation that would add new civil rights protections. During the Senate’s final debate last week, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., said he was voting “no” because the new protections for Americans were so modest they were almost meaningless.

Such objections echoed during the House debate yesterday, where the measure was supported by 214 Republicans and 66 Democrats and opposed by 13 Republicans, 124 Democrats and one independent.

“I rise in strong opposition to this legislation because it offers only a superficial reform that will have little if any impact on safeguarding our civil liberties,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

For now, Bush will be signing a package on which members of both chambers of Congress and the president can agree.

The legislation renews 16 expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain “tangible items” like business records, including those from libraries and bookstores, for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.

Other provisions would clarify that foreign intelligence or counterintelligence officers should share information obtained as part of a criminal investigation with counterparts in domestic law enforcement agencies.

Forced by Feingold’s filibuster, Congress and the White House have agreed to new curbs on the Patriot Act’s powers.

These restrictions would:

  • Give recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
  • Eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
  • Clarify that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.

    The legislation also takes aim at the distribution and use of methamphetamine by limiting the supply of a key ingredient found in everyday cold and allergy medicines.

    Yet another provision is designed to strengthen port security by imposing strict punishments on crew members who impede or mislead law enforcement officers trying to board their ships.

  • Previous
    Senate approves Patriot Act renewal
    House is expected to pass legislation next week in time for Bush to sign measure before 16 provisions expire March 10. 03.02.06


    Prosecutors to drop appeal in Patriot Act librarian case

    Federal judge ruled last year that gag order should be lifted; U.S. attorney says it no longer makes sense to fight that decision. 04.13.06

    FBI sought information on 3,501 people last year
    Secret National Security Letters were sent to banks, telephone, credit-card companies seeking information in Patriot Act antiterrorism efforts. 05.01.06

    Librarian who fended off FBI warns against government secrecy
    'Terrorists win when the fear of them induces us to destroy the rights that make us free,' George Christian tells Senate panel. 04.12.07

    ACLU lawyer: Patriot Act gag order is unconstitutional
    Attorney tells federal judge statute disregards First Amendment by permitting law enforcement authorities to ban those who receive national security letters from talking about them. 08.16.07

    Part of Patriot Act struck down
    ACLU attorney applauds federal judge's ruling, says law had wrongly given FBI sweeping authority to control speech. 09.06.07

    Lawmakers float changes to Patriot Act in wake of ruling
    Federal judge's blistering attack on law sparks behind-the-scenes talks in Washington among members of Congress who wrote and revised act. 09.07.07

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