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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.