Showdown near over Patriot Act

Lawmakers say GOP draft fails to protect civil liberties

November 17, 2005|By RICHARD B. SCHMITT | RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Republican-led congressional negotiators said late last night that they hoped to reach an agreement as soon as today to renew the expiring USA Patriot Act, but some lawmakers balked at the proposal, saying it fails to adequately protect the civil liberties of ordinary citizens caught up in terrorism investigations.

GOP leaders unveiled what they described as a draft agreement to extend the terrorism-fighting law, and they expressed hope that they would be able to bring the measure to a vote in the House and the Senate this week. The agreement, while imposing some new limits on the ability of the government to conduct certain investigations, did not include broader reforms supported by critics.

The surfacing of a possible deal, struck by a conference of House and Senate members in close consultation with the White House, prompted a swift backlash; a bipartisan group of senators vowed to kill the measure before it reached the floors of Congress.

The clashing interests set the stage for a showdown over the law, key portions of which are scheduled to expire next month unless Congress acts.

Enacted weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act gave the Justice Department and the FBI broad new powers to root out terrorist threats and to tear down legal barriers preventing sharing of information between law enforcement authorities and intelligence investigators. But it also triggered widespread opposition from groups across the political spectrum concerned that government was reaching too far into the private lives of individuals with no connection to terrorism.

Republicans said the draft they proposed would carefully balance national security and private interests. The agreement would put limits on the time during which agents can conduct certain searches without notifying the targets of the searches, and create a system allowing companies whose records were requested - such as financial institutions and Internet service providers - to challenge the demands in court.

The draft would make permanent, with little or no change, 14 of the 16 provisions set to expire Dec. 31. Two measures that have been the source of heated debate would be extended until 2012: a section giving investigators access to a wide range of business records, including library and bookstore records, and a section making it easier for agents to tap the phones of terrorism suspects. The draft includes new requirements that the Justice Department provide additional regular reports to Congress about how the law is being used.

But critics said the legislation does not go far enough and in some cases would leave citizens worse off. Most of the provisions in the draft reflect a House bill that in general provides fewer protections than those afforded in the Senate version, they said. They said some of the changes were illusory, noting a proposal that would allow recipients of national security letters - a kind of subpoena used to gain telephone and financial records - to challenge the demand in court. Under another provision of the legislation, however, recipients of those requests would have little chance of success in court because of procedural advantages the law gives to prosecutors.

Caroline Fredrickson, head of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization, which strongly criticized the original law, also has questions about the draft legislation.

"We are increasingly concerned that the bill will be something that will set us back further than the original Patriot Act that was passed in 2001," she said.

The draft also was attacked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, whose proposed changes were ignored in the draft.

"The conference committee draft retreats significantly from the bipartisan consensus we reached in the Senate," the group said in a statement.

"It simply does not accomplish what we and many of our colleagues in the Senate believe is necessary - a reauthorization bill that continues to provide law enforcement with the tools to investigate possible terrorist activity while making reasonable changes to the original law to protect innocent people from unnecessary and intrusive government surveillance."

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

USA Patriot Act

Here are three contentious provisions Congress could extend:

Information-sharing:

Gives the federal government the authority to provide information from criminal investigations to the CIA and other agencies.

Roving surveillance:

Enhances a 1978 surveillance law. Now, only one court is needed to allow agents to tap multiple electronic devices.

Accessing records:

Also enhances the 1978 law to allow easier access to records, such as those from libraries, in foreign intelligence investigations.

[Library of Congress]

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