Running in place

July 18, 2005

AFTER GIVING the Patriot Act months of careful study, Congress apparently has decided to punt.

The Patriot Act, meant to protect citizens from jihad-style attacks, was passed in such haste after Sept. 11, 2001, that many lawmakers admitted they didn't know everything that was in it. To address those concerns, a few of the most controversial sections were scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Yet now the best legislators can come up with is to make most - if not all - of these sections permanent. The Senate Judiciary Committee even gave itself a pass on deciding on two of the thorniest issues, agreeing merely to extend the expiration date on allowing the FBI access to library and business records and to secretly tap phones and computers without showing cause to a judge. Call this kick-the-can leadership.

Much of the law, especially sections that say government agencies should share information, has strengthened the country's ability to protect its people. But provisions that allow agents to dig into people's lives without their knowledge and without the oversight of a judge go too far.

Public trust that government officials can maintain the distinction between investigation and invasion has taken a beating in the past few years. Recently, the government disclosed that the Social Security Administration and IRS gave personal, supposedly confidential data about people no one suspected of doing anything wrong to the FBI after 9/11 - and haven't stopped. No wonder cities and states are calling to restore the checks and balances of civil court review, at the least.

House members showed a little backbone. Last year, the effort to quash the FBI's ability to fish into anybody's library and bookstore records got nowhere; this year, it sailed through the House, 238 to 187. Supporters say that was only a paper victory, though; they predict the provision won't survive the process of consolidating House and Senate versions of the legislation.

Speaker after speaker parsed the controversial sections at length in myriad committee hearings this spring and summer. That after all this debate Congress can offer only cosmetic changes - and consider postponing the hardest decisions another few years - is either lazy or craven. Or both.

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