House Votes to Extend Patriot Act, Cements 14 Provisions
 
WASHINGTON The U.S. House passed a bill Thursday night that would make permanent several controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a sweeping anti-terrorism and anti-crime law that Congress passed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

The House, which approved the measure 257-171 after more than 9 hours of debate, began debate shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved its version of the bill.

The debate included frequent references to the attacks earlier in the day, two weeks after larger London blasts that killed 56, including four suicide bombers.

Both bills would make permanent 14 of 16 Patriot Act provisions set to expire Dec. 31. Both would also extend "sunsets," or expiration dates, for two other provisions one dealing with wiretaps and the other with seizures of library and medical records.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate committee wants more proof of a suspect's terrorism connections before federal agents could obtain personal information. The committee also wants to eliminate a gag order provision that prohibits any business from speaking about an FBI request for information.

Once the Senate passes its version of the bill, a committee will be formed with the House to work out the differences between the two versions.

  What it authorizes

Passed in October 2001, the USA Patriot Act is a cornerstone of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, and the president has insisted that Congress make permanent all of the act's provisions.

President Bush hailed the vote.

"The Patriot Act is a key part of our efforts to combat terrorism and protect the American people, and the Congress needs to send me a bill soon that renews the act without weakening our ability to fight terror," Bush said in a statement released by the White House.

The act contains hundreds of changes to existing laws that federal investigators had sought for years dealing with terrorism, espionage and general crime. Its most significant change allowed the FBI's criminal and intelligence agents to share evidence with each other, and with the CIA.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a former FBI agent, dismissed the worries about civil liberties as "ridiculous" because "we are at war." He recalled using such tools in gang and child molestation investigations.

"All we do in the Patriot Act is say, 'Look, if we can go after child molesters sitting in the library and bombers who we need to sneak-and-peek on a warrant, we ought to be able to go after terrorists,'" he said.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said maintaining sunsets for such broad law enforcement powers ensures Congressional oversight and "encourages good behavior" by federal agents.

The roving wiretap provision, Section 206, allows investigators to obtain warrants to intercept a suspect's phone conversations or Internet traffic without limiting it to a specific phone or identifying the suspect. The records provision, Section 215, authorizes federal officials to obtain "tangible items" such as business, library and medical records.

Advocates argued that such powers already exist in criminal investigations so they should be expressly continued for terrorism investigations. They also cited safeguards in the bill, such as a requirement that a judge approve the records search.

One amendment, passed by a 402-26 vote, requires the FBI director to personally approve any request for library or bookstore records. Another successful amendment sets a 20-year jail term for an attack against a rail or mass-transit vehicle; a 30-year sentence if the vehicle carries nuclear material; and life imprisonment with the possibility of the death penalty if anyone is killed in such an attack.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said additional sunsets aren't necessary. "The record shows that there's no evidence whatsoever that the Patriot Act has been abused to violate Americans' civil liberties."

Republicans and Democrats offered nearly 20 amendments to the House bill that would place more restrictions on federal agents' surveillance powers. One of the approved amendments would require the FBI director to personally sign off on agents' requests to a secret court order for library or bookstore records.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said she favors most of the act but powers need to be tailored "so the government doesn't have a license to engage in fishing expeditions."

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, said that while "I support the majority of the 166 provisions of the Patriot Act," the extensions could lessen accountability. "Ten years is not a sunset; 10 years is semi-permanent," he said.

Democrats were incensed after Republican leaders blocked consideration of an amendment that would have blocked the library searches. The House approved identical language last month in a test vote.

The House bill number is H.R. 3199.


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