Congress on Thursday passed a four-year extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. Votes taken in rapid succession in the Senate and House came after lawmakers rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties are not abused.
Following the 250-153 evening vote in the House, the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities headed for the president’s signature with only hours to go before the provisions expire at midnight.
With Obama currently in France, the White House said the president would use an autopen machine that holds a pen and signs his actual signature. It is only used with proper authorization of the president. Minutes before the midnight deadline, the White House said Obama had signed the bill.
Obama said he was pleased the act had been extended.
“It’s an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat,” he said after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A short-term expiration would not interrupt ongoing operations but would bar the government from seeking warrants for new investigations.
Congress bumped up against the deadline mainly because of the stubborn resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul of Kentucky, who saw the terrorist-hunting powers as an abuse of privacy rights. Paul held up the final vote for several days while he demanded a chance to change the bill to diminish the government’s ability to monitor individual actions. The bill passed the Senate 72-23.
The measure would add four years to the legal life of roving wiretaps — those authorized for a person rather than a communications line or device — of court-ordered searches of business records and of surveillance of non-American “lone wolf” suspects without confirmed ties to terrorist groups.
The roving wiretaps and access to business records are small parts of the USA Patriot Act enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But unlike most of the act, which is permanent law, those provisions must be renewed periodically because of concerns that they could be used to violate privacy rights. The same applies to the “lone wolf” provision, which was part of a 2004 intelligence law.
Paul argued that in the rush to meet the terrorist threat in 2001 Congress enacted a Patriot Act that tramples on individual liberties. He had some backing from liberal Democrats and civil liberties groups who have long contended the law gives the government authority to spy on innocent citizens.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he voted for the act when he was a House member in 2001 “while ground zero was still burning.” But “I soon realized it gave too much power to government without enough judicial and congressional oversight.”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the provision on collecting business records can expose law-abiding citizens to government scrutiny. “If we cannot limit investigations to terrorism or other nefarious activities, where do they end?” he asked.
“The Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by law enforcement to invade Americans’ privacy and violate their constitutional rights,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office.
Still, coming just a month after intelligence and military forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was little appetite for tampering with the terrorism-fighting tools. These tools, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, “have kept us safe for nearly a decade and Americans today should be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will continue.”
Intelligence officials have denied improper use of surveillance tools, and this week both FBI Director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent letters to congressional leaders warning of serious national security consequences if the provisions were allowed to lapse.
The Obama administration says that without the three authorities the FBI might not be able to obtain information on terrorist plotting inside the U.S. and that a terrorist who communicates using different cell phones and email accounts could escape timely surveillance.
“When the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, we would be giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country, undetected,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. In unusually personal criticism of a fellow senator, he warned that Paul, by blocking swift passage of the bill, “is threatening to take away the best tools we have for stopping them.”
The nation itself is divided over the Patriot Act, as reflected in a Pew Research Center poll last February, before the killing of bin Laden, that found that 34 percent felt the law “goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties. Some 42 percent considered it “a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists.” That was a slight turnaround from 2004 when 39 percent thought it went too far and 33 percent said it was necessary.
Paul, after complaining that Reid’s remarks were “personally insulting,” asked whether the nation “should have some rules that say before they come into your house, before they go into your banking records, that a judge should be asked for permission, that there should be judicial review? Do we want a lawless land?”
Paul agreed to let the bill go forward after he was given a vote on two amendments to rein in government surveillance powers. Both were soundly defeated. The more controversial, an amendment that would have restricted powers to obtain gun records in terrorist investigations, was defeated 85-10 after lawmakers received a letter from the National Rifle Association stating that it was not taking a position on the measure.
According to a senior Justice Department national security official testifying to Congress last March, the government has sought roving wiretap authority in about 20 cases a year between 2001 and 2010 and has sought warrants for business records less than 40 times a year, on average. The government has yet to use the lone wolf authority.
But the ACLU also points out that court approvals for business record access jumped from 21 in 2009 to 96 last year, and the organization contends the Patriot Act has blurred the line between investigations of actual terrorists and those not suspected of doing anything wrong.
Two Democratic critics of the Patriot Act, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Udall of Colorado, on Thursday extracted a promise from Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that she would hold hearings with intelligence and law enforcement officials on how the law is being carried out.
Wyden says that while there are numerous interpretations of how the Patriot Act works, the official government interpretation of the law remains classified. “A significant gap has developed now between what the public thinks the law says and what the government secretly claims it says,” Wyden said.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman and Pete Yost contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press
9 thoughts on “Obama signs four-year extension of Patriot Act”
I’m sure Obama can’t wait to get FAST deployed. Final testing to start soon in an undisclosed place. This takes guilty until proven innocent to a whole new level. How do you prove you weren’t planning something in your mind?
Seemingly George Orwell’s predictions of our future world to come were spot-on.
The really sick twist to this high tech crap is that many former high level government types are huckstering this tech and making big bucks with Mike Chertoff, former “Homeland Security Chief” being an example. So between their former and in many cases still ‘on duty’ high level government contacts; selling their line of anti-terror products constitutes a ‘slam dunk’ proposition. / : |
They could care less about interdicting terrorists, the bottom line is making big $$ at tax debtor expense.
Carl Nemo **==
Now I know the real terrorists. I am really looking forward to 2012 November. We need to clean house in America. Interesting that the Republ;icans ushered in this police state. Now that the democrats are in charge it’s not so pretty to many republicans. Nanner, nanner,nanner.
The truth is there’s really no difference between these same two parties. They are both composed of criminals and suck-ups. The war on terror is a war on you. If we can wake up the rest of our dumbed down public perhaps we can fix this. But, based upon what I have seen i’m not holding my breath.
Which brings up a salient point Woody concerning our now devolving society.
There are things far worse than death; I.E., loss of a job while facing long term hardcore unemployment, foreclosed, on food stamps, no medical coverage along with suffering a protracted life-threatening disease all the while living in their cars, small RV’s or tent cities sprouting up around major cities. Many citizens fall in this category in our times who only a few years back were living halfway decent lives.
Thankyou “Mr. Change we can believe In”…!
Only in their ‘New AmeriKa’, not ours…no? / : |
Carl Nemo **==
You are more likely to be improperly and illegally foreclosed upon by a banker than killed by a terrorist.
If you don’t know what the law says, how do you know if you are breaking it?
Doesn’t this leave it open for them to claim it says whatever they want?
Isn’t this the very definition of tyranny?
Precisely Woody. This is all Sovietski era b.s. except its now on our shores with an in our face leadership that’s facilitating this transition into statist enforced slavery under the guise of ‘protecting us’ from terrorism. We’ve met the terrorists and seemingly it’s them…no?
This country has slowly, but surely been taken over by extreme leftist interests. The term liberal gives it a soft touch, but in reality during the past ten years, we’ve witnessed the birthing of a genuine “police state” paradigm, all under the red, white and blue of “Old Glory”. / : |
Carl Nemo **==
When these crimpols are sworn into office they need to dispense with oathing to protect and and defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and “domestic”…traitors all ! : |
They don’t fear offshore terrorists, they fear “We the People” and are feverishly turning America in their ‘New AmeriKa’ ; an electronically surveilled internment camp from coast to coast. Believe it…!
I suggest readers watch “Enemy of the State” a 1998 Jerry Bruckheimer production starring Will Smith et al. The movie best demonstrates when rogue entities within government will use the power of such surveillance provided by U.S. taxpayers to crush or to harass innocent citizens for their own corrupt ends in many cases. Our government has wrecked many lives with their obsession for seeking out ‘terrorists’. The beat goes on…!
Carl Nemo **==
Sad, Sad, Sad that this was passed. Thanks, dirty harry
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