Patriot Act renewal

October 05, 2005

Debate is nearly done on renewing the Patriot Act, and there's little cause to celebrate. Both the Senate and the House versions of the bill sidestep hard decisions; neither restores the balance between keeping Americans safe and endangering their liberties. If one must become law, it should be the Senate version, which offers a shorter timetable for the next debate and revision.

Only 16 of the more than 150 sections of the law were set to expire at year's end. They were the most confusing or contentious during the rushed debate in 2001. In both House and Senate versions of the renewal bill, 14 of these are made permanent, including those permitting the FBI to search people's homes or offices without telling them (using appropriately nicknamed "sneak-and-peek" warrants) and to read e-mail headers and Internet records without showing probable cause.

Of the two remaining provisions, the Senate avoided making a yes-or-no decision by extending their sunsets another four years; the House version would extend them for a decade. One allows the FBI to snoop into library, business, medical and other records without telling the suspect - ever - that it has done so; the other allows the FBI to tap into the conversations on any phone that might be "connected" to a suspect. Both activities contradict constitutional and common-law guarantees of due process, including the right to challenge charges in court. Having them on the books another four years won't change that.

This also was a chance wasted to require detailed reporting of how and how often these powers are used. Legislators could have had real data to decide when next they renew these provisions. Federal agents, also, would have had more impetus to use their powers for terror investigations only, not extend them into gang, immigration and drug cases.

The Senate bill also firms up some rules on using sneak-and-peak warrants, and it does not carry the pork-flavored add-ons the House bill does. It is the better choice, and should be the one that becomes law.

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