Patriot Act nears renewal

House, Senate negotiators OK continuing of controversial security laws


WASHINGTON -- House and Senate negotiators approved an extension of the controversial USA Patriot Act yesterday, but a bipartisan group of senators pledged to try to block final passage, and one lawmaker, Sen. Russell D. Feingold, threatened a filibuster.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the new legislation, which would extend and modestly alter a group of anti-terror laws passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, was "not a perfect bill, but a good bill."

"There is no justification for not fixing this thing now," said Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. "There was a unanimous vote in the Senate to change it in important areas, and the conference committee disregarded the view of the Senate, ran amok and said, `We are going to try to jam this thing through,' and that is plain unacceptable."

Feingold vowed to filibuster the bill if it came to the Senate floor in its current form, but he conceded that Republicans might be able to get enough votes to cut off debate. He said he was troubled by three provisions in the act - allowing the government to have access to people's library and business records without proof of a direct connection to terrorism; overly broad search authority; and the use of so-called "national security letters" to demand information from businesses and then require them to keep it secret.

The House and Senate are to vote on the bill next week.

While there is little debate from Feingold or anyone else in Congress about the need for police agencies to have enhanced information-gathering powers to thwart terrorism, the Patriot Act has been shadowed by unease about whether enough safeguards were built in to keep authorities from abusing power.

As a hedge against government overreach, lawmakers specified that 16 provisions of the act would expire at the end of the 2005 unless renewed, setting the stage for the current debate.

Initially, the strongest push for reforms came from an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals who are civil libertarians and dub themselves Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.

By October, reformers received an unexpected boost from powerful corporate business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, worried about the breadth of government requests for information and what they regard as a lack of adequate judicial process to contest demands for records.

The government consistently has downplayed fears of abuse. In calling for swift passage of the legislation, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales noted yesterday that the Patriot Act has a four-year record, and that "people have seen how the Department of Justice has been very responsible in exercising [its] authorities."

But in October, The Washington Post reported the FBI had employed the provisions of the act covering expansive records-gathering to annually issue more than 30,000 specialized subpoenas, or national security letters, seeking information from businesses.

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation, who split on the legislation when it passed the House in July, remained divided yesterday on a compromise. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was pleased with the compromise that some provisions would come up for review again in four years, something he had pressed for when the legislation came before the panel earlier this year.

"I think we've come a long way, because it's about accountability," said Ruppersberger, who represents much of Baltimore County. "The biggest defense against terrorism is intelligence, but we have to have checks and balances."

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, said he opposed the bill because it intrudes too much into the privacy of average Americans. "I just think that one of the main reasons we're such a great country ... is the enormous respect we've always shown for the rights of the individual," he said.

Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore said he also would vote against the legislation, adding that the bill is another example of the poor job the administration and the Congress have done in balancing national security with protecting individual rights.

"When the war is over, will Americans still have the democracy that they had before the war?" Cummings asked.

Ruppersberger supported the House version of the bill this year, as did Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny H. Hoyer, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. Bartlett and Cummings opposed it, as did Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn, both Democrats.

Andrew Zajac writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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