US Senate Panel Extends Controversial Patriot Act Provisions


The Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly passed a bill Thursday to extend several controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the counterterrorism law hastily drafted in the aftermath of 9/11.

The parts of the Patriot Act set to expire December 31 that the panel voted to extend until 2013 included roving wiretaps, which authorizes the FBI to target individuals using multiple phone numbers; the "lone wolf" provision, which targets individuals who are not connected to terrorist groups and has thus far never been used; and, perhaps the most controversial, section 215 orders , otherwise known as the "library records" provision, which allows the FBI to access individuals' personal records via National Security Letters (NSLs).

In March 2007, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine issued a 200-page report documenting FBI abuses of National Security Letters. Fine testified before Congress during the time that the FBI may have violated the law 3,000 times since 2003 by improperly using NSLs to collect information on US citizens.

The bill - the USA Patriot Act Sunset Extension Act - was co-sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and committee member Dianne Feinstein, who also chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and passed was passed by a vote of 11 to 8. It will now be sent to the full Senate for consideration and will likely be the subject of fierce debate by conservative lawmakers, who believe it does not go far enough in allowing law enforcement to combat terrorism, and liberal Democrats, who say it tramples on privacy rights.

Civil liberties' advocates and some Democratic lawmakers were sharply critical of the legislation as it currently stands and criticized their colleagues for supporting it.

"What was most upsetting was the apparent willingness of too many members to defer completely to behind the scenes complaints from the FBI and the Justice Department, even though the [Obama] administration has yet to take a public position on any of the improvements that I and other senators have proposed," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin). "I am left scratching my head trying to understand how a committee controlled by a wide Democratic margin could support the bill it approved today ..."

Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington legislative office, said the bill "was a missed opportunity for the Senate Judiciary Committee to right the wrongs of the Patriot Act and stand up for Americans' Fourth Amendment rights."

"We are disappointed that further changes were not made to ensure Americans' civil liberties would be adequately protected by this Patriot Act legislation," Macleod-Ball added. "The meager improvements made during this markup will certainly be overshadowed by allowing so many horrible amendments to be added to an already weak bill. Congress cannot continue to make this mistake with the Patriot Act again and again. We urge the Senate to adopt amendments on the floor that will bring this bill in line with the Constitution."

The Advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said, "instead of adding more protections to the bill, [the Judiciary Committee] voted to accept seven Republican amendments [and removed] the few civil liberties protections left in the bill after it was already watered down at last Thursday's Committee meeting. Surprisingly and disappointingly, most of those amendments were recommended to their Republican sponsors by the Obama Administration."

Indeed. One Republican Senator, Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, the Washington Post reported "won approval for a package of amendments, intended to meet the concerns of intelligence officials and the administration, that would limit the scope of newly crafted privacy protections for library records, preserve the government's ability to maintain secrecy concerning NSLs in sensitive investigations, and keep current law in place by not imposing unprecedented minimization requirements on information."

Senators who voted in favor of the bill are:

Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont
Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin
Dianne Feinstein, D-California
Chuck Schumer, D-New York
Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland
Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota
Ted Kaufman, D-Delaware
Al Franken, D-Minnesota
Jon Kyl, R-Arizona
John Cornyn, R-Texas

Those who voted no:

Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin
Dick Durbin, D-Illinois
Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania
Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama
Orin Hatch, R-Utah
Charles Grassley, R-Iowa
Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina
Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma