WASHINGTON - President Bush kicked off a push yesterday to press Congress into extending expiring provisions of the anti-terrorism law passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, saying that failing to keep them in force would leave the nation vulnerable.
Bush used his weekly radio address to renew and amplify a demand he first made in his State of the Union address in January, calling on the House and Senate to act to extend provisions of the USA Patriot Act that will otherwise expire at the end of next year. The provisions include making it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information about suspected terrorists, expanding the use of wiretaps and search warrants, and allowing the government to track who is sending e-mail to or receiving it from suspected terrorists.
"To abandon the Patriot Act would deprive law enforcement and intelligence officers of needed tools in the war on terror and demonstrate willful blindness to a continuing threat," Bush said.
The White House's renewed focus on the issue comes after weeks in which the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks assailed the FBI and CIA - and to some degree the Bush administration - for failing to do more to identify and head off the terrorist threat. The commission focused attention on a number of shortcomings that impeded intelligence and law enforcement agencies from acting more aggressively, including a wall that hindered sharing a lot of information about suspected terrorists.
In raising the issue again now, Bush is hoping to emphasize to the nation the steps he took after the attacks to ensure that terrorists could never again operate so freely within the United States, administration officials said. The White House has also been considering other steps in advance of the commission's recommendations this summer, including an overhaul of the nation's intelligence agencies.
Although the Patriot Act passed Congress with broad bipartisan support soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it has subsequently become one of the most hotly debated pieces of legislation to come out of Capitol Hill in decades.
Civil libertarians in particular have fought hard to have it scaled back or repealed, asserting that it went too far in sacrificing individual rights in a rush to ensure that law enforcement had broad powers to identify and track potential terrorists. But even some Republicans who support the White House's desire for robust legal powers for the fight against terrorism said the law needed to be reviewed carefully. Neither the House nor Senate is scheduled to consider extending the expiring provisions anytime soon.
But Bush suggested yesterday that opponents of the bill were deluding themselves about the degree of the terrorist threat and risked leaving law enforcement and intelligence officials handcuffed in their ability to thwart terrorists.
"Key elements of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year," Bush said. "Some politicians in Washington act as if the threat to America will also expire on that schedule."
Among those members of Congress critical of the act has been Sen. John Kerry, Bush's rival in the presidential race. While supporting some of the act's main provisions, including those allowing greater sharing of intelligence and law enforcement information, the Massachusetts Democrat has criticized Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for using the legislation to limit civil liberties.
Kerry has called in particular for putting more restrictions on some searches and wiretaps and for reining in the government's ability to gain access to library and business records.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believed the White House was trying to distract voters from the counterterrorism failings raised in recent weeks by the Sept. 11 commission hearings.
"President Bush is clearly fighting a defensive battle for the Patriot Act," Romero said. "This comes on the heels of the 9/11 commission and on the heels of progress seen in Congress by Republicans and Democrats who say that the Patriot Act went too far."