Thursday, December 8, 2005

Senate and House negotiators yesterday agreed to extend for four years provisions of the USA Patriot Act authorizing roving wiretaps, “sneak-and-peek” searches and secret warrants for books and other records at businesses, hospitals and libraries.

But passage of the agreement, outlined in a conference report, is not guaranteed, with at least one Democrat, Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, threatening a filibuster. A significant bipartisan Senate bloc of civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle also appear ready to oppose the measure.

“I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report, which does not include adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms,” Mr. Feingold said. “The version of the Patriot Act that was signed today is a major disappointment.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced the agreement, saying that despite the need for law enforcement to have the necessary tools to fight terrorism, “there’s been a need for refinement of the protection of civil liberties and civil rights.”

“This is not a perfect bill. … We hammered out what I think is a good bill — I repeat, not a perfect bill, but a good bill,” he said.

Mr. Specter said he expects approval of the report in both the Senate and the House, and he is confident of gaining the 60 votes needed to break any Senate filibuster. The House is expected to vote on the report Wednesday. The Senate also is scheduled to vote on the report next week.

The three contentious provisions, part of the sweeping counterterrorism law passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, were due to expire at the end of the month. The report includes four-year sunsets on the three provisions and adds the following protections:

• A judge must be satisfied that personal records requested by law enforcement from businesses, hospitals and libraries are relevant to a terrorism investigation.

• Authorities would have to identify a specific target of the wiretap and prove in court there was reason to think that that person would take steps to avoid detection.

• Subjects of a so-called “sneak-and-peek” search — in which a warrant is served allowing a house to be searched surreptitiously without the owner’s knowledge — now must be notified within 30 days of the search. Notification within a “reasonable period of time” is the existing standard.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the revised legislation still allows the FBI access to personal records of “innocent Americans” without a demonstrated connection between those records and suspected terrorists.

“This sham compromise agreement fails to address the primary substantive concern raised by millions of Americans, as well as civil liberties, privacy and business organizations and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU’s Washington legislative office director.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales applauded the agreement and urged both houses of Congress to act promptly to pass it, saying it “grants us additional tools to protect Americans from terrorism.”

He said the legislation creates a national security division at Justice and “provides additional protections against the threat of attacks on mass transportation systems and at our seaports.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said the conference report does not protect Americans’ privacy rights and that Democratic conferees were excluded from key negotiations.

Mr. Leahy said that if a satisfactory bill cannot be achieved by the end of the year, he will propose a three-month extension for the expiring provisions of the act, adding that “Congress has had years to improve and renew these provisions … but has failed to act expeditiously.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, yesterday signed on to a letter from Democratic conferees proposing a three-month extension to the expiring provisions to allow more work on the act.

“Unfortunately, the House waited six months to appoint conferees, so there is now a rush to meet the deadline for the expiring provisions,” he said. “With so much at stake, there are too many remaining concerns to rush this bill.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, called the conference report a “huge step forward in keeping America safe.” He said an improved Patriot Act would strengthen counterterrorism protections and enhance safeguards to protect civil liberties and privacy.

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