Patriot Act Extension Passes Key Hurdle in House

By Carolyn Bolls | July 7, 2008 | 8:22pm EDT

( - Six days after terrorists blew up three subway trains and a bus in London, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved the renewal of the Patriot Act. The bill's fate is uncertain in the Senate.

The bombings killed at least 53 people, leading Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to credit the Patriot Act for helping to prevent such attacks in the U.S.

"It is not by luck that the United States has not been attacked since September 11, 2001," Sensenbrenner stated last week, following the London attacks. "It is through increased cooperation and information sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well as the enhanced domestic security and investigative tools contained in legislation such as the Patriot Act."

Sensenbrenner warned Congress and the American people to "not let our guard down in the face of this terrorist threat." Sixteen provisions of the Patriot Act are due to expire at the end of this year unless the law is renewed.

Judiciary Committee passage of the Patriot Act reauthorization followed 11 hearings, during which the panel heard from 35 witnesses, including those who believe the law violates personal liberties.

An amendment to the bill, offered by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), was approved 26-2 and would require sections applying to "roving wiretaps" to expire or sunset after 10 years.

The wiretaps, which civil libertarians criticize as an excessive law enforcement tool, give the FBI permission to tap into any communications made to or from a suspected target without identifying the monitored line.

Another provision of the Patriot Act, which gives federal agents access to tax, library and medical records through a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, would also expire after 10 years, under terms of Lungren's amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is at the forefront of groups criticizing the Patriot Act's provisions. "The Patriot Act gives the government sweeping authority to seize sensitive personal information and belongings," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU described the changes Congress was making to the Patriot Act as "cosmetic." Lisa Graves, the group's senior counsel for legislative strategy, said the new proposals "mimic the same flaws of the initial Patriot Act.

"They continue to place extraordinary powers in the hands of the executive, with ... diminished oversight by both Congress and the judiciary," she added.

Graves suggested that Congress should pass alternative legislation called the Safe Act, which she described as a bi-partisan bill that "strikes the right balance in securing the nation and protecting our freedoms."

But Paul Rosenzweig of the conservative Heritage Foundation said the Patriot Act "is a significant step in combating terrorism." He complimented efforts to eventually phase out Section 215, which applies to tax, library and medical records, saying the Judiciary Committee members are "thoughtful and responsive to some of the criticisms."

Rosenzweig also dismissed concerns about the law's alleged violation of privacy rights. "There have been no abuses of the Patriot Act ... and that's a report from the Department of Justice's inspector general."

He insisted that support of the Patriot Act's sunset clauses is also not just a conservative effort. Conservatives, he said, were "joined by a bi-partisan group from the Clinton era" in pushing for the changes.

"With appropriate provisions, the Patriot Act should become part of permanent law," he said.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) also supported the bill's renewal but pushed for improvements. "Mend it. Don't end it," she said.

President Bush promoted the extension of the Patriot Act in a speech Monday at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. "The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of this year, and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act," Bush said.

The entire House is expected to consider the Patriot Act reauthorization (H.R. 3199) next week.

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