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Congress Reauthorizes Patriot Act, Sidesteps Privacy Concerns

Under pressure from the White House and Republicans

Under pressure from the White House and Republicans, a bill to extend three key provisions of the Patriot Act was passed by the House Thursday with little discussion or debate and sent to President Obama, who is expected to immediately sign it into law.

The bill passed with an overwhelming majority, 315-97, and will allow law enforcement and intelligence officials to continue to compel private businesses to turn over records; track non-government entities, such as terrorist organizations; and use so-called “roving wiretaps,” which can be set up regardless of whether the line being tapped is sometimes used for legitimate purposes. The provisions in the bill would be extended until February 28, 2011, and are set to expire this Sunday.

Both chambers passed the measure swiftly—the Senate voted for it on Wednesday—after Democrats agreed to drop greater restrictions and oversight on domestic spying programs.

“I would have preferred to add oversight and judicial review improvements to any extension of expiring provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in a statement.

The Democrats, facing a looming deadline and a potential filibuster in the Senate, backed away from many key provisions concerning congressional oversight in what is seen by critics as a blow to both the party and civil liberties.

In the House, only a few Congressmen, including Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) came out in public opposition to the bill.

“As Members of Congress sworn to protect the rights and civil liberties afforded to us by the Constitution, we have a responsibility to exercise our oversight powers fully, and significantly reform the PATRIOT Act, ensuring that the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans are fully protected,” Kucinich said in a statement. “More than eight years after the passage of the PATRIOT Act, we have failed to do so.”

Republicans have been hammering Democrats on issues of national security for months, including the decision to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal court, as well as the moving of the remaining inmates in Guantanamo Bay Prison to a prison in the US.

Leahy introduced the legislation in November, and it follows further revelations of domestic wiretapping that took place during the Bush Administration, including a January report from the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General on the FBI’s use of “exigent letters” to obtain phone records without judicial oversight or a subpoena.

After high-level officials in the FBI and White House discovered the practice in 2006, they issued 11 National Security Letters – an administrative subpoena demanding that an organization turn over data about an individual – in an attempt to “try to ‘cover’ or validate the improperly obtained records,” according to the report.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a letter to Leahy expressing his “strong support” of the Patriot Act Extension, wrote that NSLs, “remain a critical tool of national security investigations.”

They were a topic of heated debate in both the House and the Senate.

“These letters, issued with no court oversight, have been used to obtain all sorts of material, and have been joined with gag orders on the recipients that were recently struck down by the courts,” Nadler said. “I hope that this vote today will not stop my colleagues from continuing to improve our intelligence gathering laws.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) attempted to add an amendment to the bill that would have reformed the way NSLs can be used. Senators Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) were unsuccessful in adding an amendment to not reauthorize the so-called “lone wolf” power, which permits surveillance of targets with no ties to foreign powers.

Feingold was, however, able to add an amendment that would limit the records the government can keep while using NSLs. He was also the only Senator to vote against the original Patriot Act legislation passed in 2001.

Both the House and the Senate are working on bills that would extend and reform the Patriot Act, but remain at an impasse on which powers the government should be able to retain, and how to oversee how those powers are being exercised.

The House version of the bill would eliminate the “lone wolf” power, while the Senate would simply reauthorize existing authorities. The bills, both of which passed through committee and await floor action, contain significant oversight of these powers. Democratic lawmakers could now potentially push action on the bill until after the midterm elections in what has already proven to be a costly battle on national security.

Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, told Truthout he is troubled that lawmakers passed the bill without discussing any of the privacy concerns raised by civil libertarians.

Congress “doesn’t seem to have any appreciation for its role as a body meant to check and balance the executive,” Buttar said. “This is simply a straight reauthorization of a law that was in effect when [George W. Bush] was in office,” Buttar said. “Since then, we had three Inspectors General reports documenting abuse. There’s not even a hint or a scratch of civil liberties protections. Congress is simply issuing another blank check.”

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