WASHINGTON — Opponents of the USA Patriot Act say that a congressional move to consider temporarily extending three key provisions that are due to expire at year's end opens the door to try to alter or eliminate some of the national security strategies implemented by former President George W. Bush and embraced by President Barack Obama.
Extending the provisions — elements that Patriot Act opponents don't like — was part of Congress' to-do list before it adjourns for the holidays. However, Congress may turn to temporary extensions because of the pressure to pass health care legislation and complete other legislative business before going home.
The three Patriot Act provisions that would expire allow the federal government to collect business, credit card and even library records of national security targets, use roving wiretaps to keep tabs on suspects who try to avoid detection by repeatedly changing cell phone numbers and track so-called "lone wolves," individuals who may be working on behalf of foreign governments or terrorist groups.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a House Judiciary Committee member, said that extending the Patriot Act provisions temporarily would buy opponents time to press the White House to back House of Representatives and Senate proposals that would establish uniform procedures for courts and judges to deal with government state-secrets claims.
"A lot of people don't want to extend it without giving (the Patriot Act) a good scrubbing. A lot of guys on Judiciary want a full debate on it," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., another Judiciary member.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday that a proposal for a two-month extension of the Patriot Act provisions would be included in a $626 billion defense spending bill that could be voted on as early as Wednesday.
The decision to wait until next year to deal with the provisions reflects Democratic angst over the Patriot Act and highlights the awkward position that the post-9/11 anti-terrorism law has put Obama in.
When he was a senator from Illinois, Obama was a vocal critic of the Patriot Act. As president, however, he urged lawmakers in September to move quickly to reauthorize the provisions. Many liberal Democrats and civil liberties advocates seethed over his request.
"We don't see the need for (the Patriot Act provisions) when there are other judicial tools available," said Michael Macleod-Ball, the acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington.
A Senate measure sponsored in February by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania would require judges to look at the evidence the federal government claims is privileged instead of relying only on government affidavits; and would require judges to order the government to produce unclassified or redacted versions of sensitive evidence.
"The White House wants the Patriot Act, and I want the State Secrets (Protection) Act," said Nadler, the chair of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. "The (two) months give us a chance to negotiate with the administration."
The disappointment of Patriot Act opponents grew earlier this year when Obama's administration followed a Bush White House strategy in a legal case.
The administration argued that a lawsuit against a company suspected of involvement in CIA "extraordinary rendition" flights — in which detained terrorism suspects were shipped to other countries — should be thrown out to avoid revealing state secrets that would violate national security.
A federal appeals court rejected the administration's argument in April. In October, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it would reconsider the decision to allow the lawsuit, filed by five detainees, to proceed.
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