Senators slam Patriot Act compromise


WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of half a dozen senators slammed the brakes on efforts to extend the life of the Patriot Act yesterday, charging that a compromise version being debated in a conference committee doesn't do enough "to protect innocent people from unnecessary and intrusive government surveillance."

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, three Republicans joined three Democrats in describing the bill as "unacceptable." They added that "if further changes are not made, we will work to stop this bill from becoming law."

They issued their challenge after conference negotiators had hammered out a compromise to make permanent most provisions of the Patriot Act, enacted shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to give the Justice Department broad new tools to fight terrorism. The statute is set to expire Dec. 31, and lawmakers are scrambling to reauthorize it before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Officials on both the House and Senate side said that the debate was in a holding pattern as the conferees tried to work toward an agreement that would get the six out of 10 votes needed to move the bill back to the House and Senate for separate votes. Once that happens, it is not possible to amend the bill again.

The conference report would make 14 of the law's 16 provisions permanent and would add seven-year expiration dates for one provision that gives the FBI access to personal and business information - known as the "library provision" - and another that allows it to wiretap all of a suspect's telecommunications.

The critics are Republicans Larry E. Craig of Idaho, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

The Patriot Act broke down barriers that restricted the exchange of information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but critics said it allowed the government too much leeway to probe into citizens' lives. In July, the Senate passed a version of the bill with strong bipartisan support that put greater limits on Patriot Act powers than the House version, which the conference bill more closely resembles, according to officials close to the negotiations. The White House reportedly prefers the House version.

"The conference is destroying the good work done in the Senate to fix the legislation," said Feingold, who expects a showdown over the issue. The Wisconsin senator said the original Patriot Act was flawed because there was so little time to consider its ramifications in the fevered rush to pass the law after the attacks.

"Those excuses are gone now," Feingold said, arguing that there is now time to find a balance between security needs and protecting civil rights.

The conference bill does limit some of the most controversial provisions, including the so-called library provision, which now allows people to contact an attorney and challenge requests for information in court. But critics like the American Civil Liberties Union say they won't offer much protection in practice.

"You're in front of a court where the government has the ability to issue secret information you can't see and the standard for issuing the order is so broad, it's hard to see how the government could not meet it," said Timothy Edgar, a national security policy counsel with the ACLU.

The Senate bill had required that "library provision" orders only be issued if the government can show a connection between the documents being sought and a suspected terrorist or spy. The conference report requires only that the orders show reasonable grounds to believe that the records being sought are "relevant," a standard that the senators said would "allow government fishing expeditions."

The Patriot Act also allows the government to search homes and businesses secretly under orders dubbed "sneak-and-peek" warrants. The conference report requires the government to notify its target within 30 days after a search, and allows for that notification period to be extended, as opposed to the Senate's seven-day limit.

The senators criticized the seven-year sunset provisions on two sections of the law as too long. They had recommended four, as opposed to the 10-year period the House wanted. And they complained that "national security letters," which the FBI can use without a court order to request records from banks, credit providers and communications companies, do not allow for adequate judicial review.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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