WASHINGTON—The White House won two national-security victories in the Senate on Thursday, as the Patriot Act cleared a major hurdle that ensures it will be renewed soon and a compromise eased Republican objections to a secret domestic-wiretapping program, probably ensuring that there won't be a congressional investigation of it.
The Senate voted 96-3 to move toward final passage of new civil liberties protections to the Patriot Act, which the White House negotiated with a handful of Republicans.
Some Democrats remain convinced that the act, the post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law, gives the federal government too much power to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. It's set to expire next month unless it's renewed.
But Thursday's vote clears the way for final congressional approval, which seems assured once Congress returns after next week's Presidents Day recess.
At the same time, the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee blocked Democratic demands for an inquiry into the National Security Agency's secret domestic-eavesdropping program.
"I believe that such an investigation is currently unwarranted and would be detrimental to this highly classified program," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee's chairman.
And in a related development, a federal court judge on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to comply within 20 days with a Freedom of Information Act request by a civil liberties group for internal records relating to the secret eavesdropping operation.
President Bush authorized the program shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to intercept communications, without warrants, between U.S. residents and suspected terrorists or their allies abroad.
The committee's Republicans backed away from an inquiry once the White House signaled support for legislation that would give Congress greater oversight over the program, while not restricting the NSA's ability to intercept communications without warrants.
Domestic wiretapping in terrorism investigations is covered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 1978 law that set up a secret court to issue warrants for domestic surveillance. Many lawmakers from both parties think that Bush's NSA program may violate that law.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is sponsoring a bill that would declare the program legal and would create a joint House-Senate intelligence subcommittee to oversee it. He discussed his bill with White House counsel Harriet Miers on Wednesday.
"We are open to ideas regarding legislation," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "The one thing the president said was that he would resist legislation if it would compromise this vital program that helps save lives and prevent attacks from happening."
That accommodation appeared to mollify Intelligence Committee Republicans who had been considering support for a committee inquiry.
But at least one Republican warned the administration to give Congress more information.
"The administration must demonstrate its commitment to avoiding a constitutional deadlock by engaging in good faith negotiations before March 7, when the Intelligence Committee reconvenes," said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a panel member.
Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was circulating a proposal to require the administration to submit the NSA program to the FISA court to determine its constitutionality.
Thursday's court ruling against the Justice Department involved records sought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, including internal memos and opinions concerning the legality of the eavesdropping operation, and an accounting of the NSA's activities under the program.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. didn't deal with the program's legality. Instead, he ruled that the department was bound by a FOIA requirement to expedite the processing and release of the records within at least 20 days of the request.
The gave the department until March 8 to comply with his order, or provide the EPIC with a list of all records it was withholding and its justifications for doing so by March 18.
There was no immediate reaction from the department, which was expected to appeal the ruling.
The Patriot Act bill would renew most provisions. Last year the Senate blocked renewal after Democrats and a few Republicans argued that more protections were needed against government intrusion.
Last week the White House and Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, the law's leading Republican critic, reached a deal that adds three new civil liberties provisions:
_Libraries that function as traditional book lenders and offer Internet access wouldn't be subject to so-called "national security letters," which are essentially subpoenas for business records that the FBI can issue in terrorism investigations without warrants.
_It allows appeals of gag orders placed on recipients of national security letters. The gag orders prevent business owners from revealing that their records are being examined. Appeals could occur one year after receiving the letters.
_It removes a requirement that a recipient of a national security letter must provide the FBI with the name of any lawyer consulted about the search.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said the changes amounted to cosmetics and that the bill remained flawed. He said it would still allow "government fishing expeditions," and he ridiculed the one-year delay before permitting an appeal of a gag order.
New civil liberties provisions for the Patriot Act:
_Allow recipients of secret national-security letters, which allow examination of business records, to appeal gag orders.
_Remove the requirement that recipients of national security letters must notify the FBI of the identity of any attorneys consulted on the matter.
_Exempt libraries that provide only traditional services such as book lending and Internet access from receiving national security letters.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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