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Democrats and Republicans alike rush to extend the PATRIOT Act

January 31, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

There’s not a whole lot these days that the Republican House of Representatives and the Democratic Senate are eager to work on together. But there is at least one thing. On February 28th, three controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act are scheduled to expire, and in the past couple of weeks Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have introduced several bills to reauthorize and extend them.

The PATRIOT Act provisions that are set to expire include the authority for “roving” wiretaps that allows the government to monitor computers that may occasionally be used by suspected terrorists, the “tangible records provision” that requires banks, telecoms and libraries to hand over any customer information the government requests without informing the customer, and the “lone wolf” provision allowing the government to track international terrorist groups. All of the recently introduced bills would extend these provisions, and some would go further by reauthorizing expiring laws that allowing the government to wiretap calls between American citizens and foreigners without a warrant.

The bills already have the backing of the committee chairmen who will be in charge of marking it up and sending it to the full chamber for votes.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith [R, TX-21] is co-sponsoring H.R.514 and calling it “a step toward the long-term reauthorization” of the PATRIOT Act provisions. That bill is also being co-sponsored by Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers [R, MI-8]. Rogers has also introduced his own version of the bill, H.R.67. As of this writing it’s not clear how, if at all, the two versions differ.

In the Senate, Judiciary Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy [D, VT] has introduced the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 to extend the expiring provisions. As Rachel Slajda at TPM notes, the bill adds some new restrictions on how the government can request personal information (i.e. “tangible records”). Under Leahy’s bill, the government will have to show the courts “a statement of facts showing reasonable grounds to believe the tangible things are relevant to an authorized investigation” in order to access private information of individuals. The ACLU calls this a step in the right direction, but not enough. They want the tangible records provision to be for terrorism suspects only, not for anyone who the government believes could provide useful information for a terrorism investigation.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D, CA] has introduced her own version of the legislation. Hers adds an extension of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which, in addition to granting retroactive legal immunity to telecom companies that teamed up with the Bush Administration to illegally wiretap U.S. citizens, made it easier for the government to wiretap calls that involve U.S. citizens who are not suspects.

Notably, both Senate bills would extend the provisions until 2013 while both House bills would extend them only until next February. Apparently Republicans think having this reauthorization debate again in 2012 is good for them electrically. Democrats, not so much. Regardless of the political considerations, though, it’s pretty clear that the powers that be, in both parties, want the PATRIOT Act extended. There aren’t too many other issues that you’re likely to see this level of quick, co-ordinated and top-down bipartisan action on.

The signing ceremony for the original PATRIOT Act is pictured above. As you can see, it has always been bipartisan. That’s Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] with the huge grin.

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