- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

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 limit the law enforcement powers in response to complaints that individual liberties might be abused.

Following the 250-153 evening vote in the House, the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities was sent for the president’s signature with only hours to go before the provisions expire at midnight.

The White House said President Obama, currently in Europe for a diplomatic summit, would use an autopen machine that holds a pen and signs his actual signature. It is only used with proper authorization of the president.
Mr. Obama would be awakened by 5:45 a.m. in France so he can review and approve the bill and authorize his signature, the White House said.

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.
Mr. 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 early Thursday evening.
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 - court-ordered searches of business records and 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, which was enacted in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. But unlike most of the act, which is permanent law, those provisions must be periodically renewed 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 act.

Mr. 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 that have long contended that the Patriot Act gives the government authority to spy on innocent citizens.

Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, 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.

But intelligence officials have denied improper use of surveillance tools, and this week both FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. 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 cellphones and email accounts could escape timely surveillance.

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