WASHINGTON—Senate Republican leaders, faced with a New Year's Eve deadline for the expiration of the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act, gave in to Democratic demands Wednesday and unanimously agreed to extend the current law by six months in order to add more civil liberties protections to a new version of the law.
The deal defies President Bush, who had urged the Senate to pass legislation to renew the act, most of it permanently. Bush had vowed to reject an earlier proposed extension of three months.
The agreement also ensures that the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that the Bush administration credits for thwarting terror plots in the United States, would remain on the books.
"It gets us to where we want to get," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of four Republicans who joined Democrats in blocking renewal of the law. "The majority of the United States Senate did not want to see the Patriot Act die. We wanted to see it reformed."
The deal came together after Democrats, joined by four Republicans, last Friday blocked a vote to renew the act in hopes of winning stronger civil liberties provisions in the new law. On Wednesday, pressure mounted on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to extend the law, even though he'd been adamant that he wouldn't.
Fifty-two senators, including eight Republicans, asked Frist to accept a three-month extension. Most senators had indicated earlier they would have accepted a six-month extension as well.
"They ought to extend it—three months, six months or a year—we ought to not let it expire," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
The House of Representatives would have to approve the extension before Bush could sign it into law, and the House is scheduled to remain in recess until Jan. 31. The House previously voted to renew the act as it is, not to extend it temporarily.
For days, Bush had portrayed Democrats as obstructionists intent on killing the Patriot Act.
"This obstruction is inexcusable," Bush told reporters Wednesday morning. "The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."
The president didn't mention that four Republican senators—Craig, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—had joined all 44 Democrats to block the act's renewal by vowing a filibuster, an extended debate that can be ended only by 60 votes in the 100-member Senate.
The act gives law enforcement agencies enhanced powers to search and seize an array of personal documents, ranging from medical and financial records to library lending lists.
It requires investigators who want to seize such records to convince a court that the records are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation. That's a far lower threshold than the "probable cause" standard required to get a warrant in a criminal case.
Opponents say the law doesn't sufficiently protect innocent Americans. Senate opponents have taken particular aim at Section 215, which allows a special judge to issue an order for "any tangible thing" that investigators want in a foreign intelligence investigation. The provision also prohibits the record holders from telling anyone about the order.
Critics call that a "gag order" because it prohibits the holder of the records from talking to anyone about the order.
"Giving someone an opportunity to challenge a gag order doesn't inhibit law enforcement's ability to do their job," said Sununu. "Being fair and getting rid of a punitive provision that requires you to go to the FBI, tell them if you talked to a lawyer and name that lawyer—which is nowhere else in law—doesn't undermine law enforcement's ability to do their job."
The six-month extension would require the Patriot Act to be renewed in June. Advocates of the extension said that would be enough time to complete the work they want done and still avoid politicizing the issue with the November elections.
PATRIOT ACT PROVISIONS
The USA Patriot Act was passed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has remained controversial. Proponents say the act is a necessary tool in the war on terrorism. Critics say some of its provisions infringe on American civil liberties. Here's a look at some of the more controversial provisions:
_Roving wiretaps. Section 206 allows a single wiretap authorization to cover multiple devices, ending the need for law enforcement to seek separate court authorizations for a suspect's multiple communications devices.
_Records access. Section 215 gives law enforcement easier access to business records. Derisively called the "libraries provision" by critics, the provision gives a special judge the power to issue an order for "any tangible thing" sought by law enforcement in foreign intelligence investigations. The provision also contains a "gag order" that prohibits the record holders from telling anyone about the order. Civil libertarians, library groups and bookstore owners oppose the measure.
_Information sharing. Section 203(b) and (d) permits information from criminal investigations to be shared with intelligence agencies and other parts of the government. Supporters contend that this helps improve teamwork among intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Critics say sharing information could produce large databases about people who aren't under investigation.
_E-mails. Section 212 allows communications providers to inform law enforcement about suspicious e-mails if there's an immediate threat of physical injury.
_Eavesdropping: Section 217 permits the government to listen to electronic communications, with no judicial oversight, if one party agrees.
The full text of the act is available at:
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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