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Patriot Act's fate remains uncertain

Despite strong House support, opposition brewing in Senate



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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Justice and Rights
Michael Chertoff

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Roving wiretaps and the ability to peek into private medical records are among the provisions of the Patriot Act that will remain intact if the Senate follows the House lead on the bill.

By a 251-174 vote Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed to renew 16 of the act's provisions that were set to expire at year's end. The bill now heads back to the Senate, where a fiercer battle is expected.

The Senate has scheduled a vote for Friday to end its debate on the reauthorization of the act.

"What I'm urging my colleagues to do is come to the floor today to debate," Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday. "I'll be on the floor. Let us take up their concerns one by one. And I ask my colleagues who are not decided yet, who do not know all of the intricacies, to listen."

President Bush praised the actions of the House.

"The Patriot Act is essential to fighting the war on terror and preventing our enemies from striking America again," Bush said in a statement. "In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."

Among the provisions the House proposes to extend is one allowing the FBI, with a court order, to place wiretaps on every phone a suspect uses -- a procedure called a roving wiretap -- and another permitting the agency to obtain personal records, including medical documents and library activity.

With Senate approval, these investigative tools would be available to the FBI for another four years. The majority of the act, however, has no expiration date.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said if Congress fails to renew the Patriot Act before it adjourns for the holidays, it will "cripple" law enforcement in the battle against terrorists.

"This thing has been looked at upside down, sideways for a long period of time," Chertoff said. "I don't think there's much more to be studied. Some corrections have been made to address concerns raised by some critics. The fundamental tools are sound.

"The case against the Patriot Act has never been made. The case for the Patriot Act has been made in a number of instances where we've disrupted or prevented terrorist attacks."

Civil liberty advocates have inspired changes to some of the act's provisions that they consider troubling, namely one that allows authorities to obtain warrants and search suspects' homes without telling them, if it would jeopardize an ongoing investigation. (Watch some provisions that worry privacy advocates -- 2:03)

Under the bill passed Wednesday, subjects of search warrants would have to be notified within 30 days, but authorities are allowed to ask for extensions.

The bill also changes the rules surrounding National Security Letters, which the FBI increasingly has used in the past few years to request a variety of personal information, including financial, phone and Internet records.

The letters have been criticized because of the secrecy surrounding them, but if the bill's changes become law, the U.S. Justice Department will have to divulge how often they are used and perform audits of their use.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Chertoff are among those lobbying Congress to pass the reauthorization bill, saying it is essential to fighting terrorism.

In an opinion piece Wednesday in The Washington Post, Gonzales emphasized the need for urgency in passing the bill "before the men and women in law enforcement lose the tools they need to keep us safe."

Chertoff told CNN that information sharing permitted since the September 11 attacks helps law enforcement "to connect the dots and break up terrorist cells before they have a chance to carry out their plans."

He cited as an example the arrest and successful prosecution of six men from Lackawanna, New York, who went to an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

A bipartisan group of nine senators is rejecting the call to pass the bill swiftly and wants to garner support for a three-month extension to allow negotiators to craft a new bill.

"It is not too late to remedy the problems with the conference report," states a letter from the senators urging their colleagues to vote against halting debate when the bill reaches the floor.

Gonzales this week joined Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in rejecting the idea of reopening negotiations or temporarily extending the bill.

Sensenbrenner said the present proposal should be ratified or the expiring provisions and changes to the bill will die.

Another proponent of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said that he was opposed to a short-term extension.

GOP consensus is not a given though, as four Republican senators, including Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, already have indicated their opposition to the bill, and Sununu said the foursome has secured "a bit more support."

Also looking for support is Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who was the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act in 2001. He has called the House bill "a major disappointment" and vowed to do everything he can, including filibuster, to stop the bill's passage.

Feingold made his comments after Specter, R-Pennsylvania, announced last week that House and Senate negotiators had agreed on a version of the Patriot Act that Specter said found a balance between national security and civil liberties.

Under the compromise, three controversial elements of the act -- including the roving wiretaps and access to personal records -- would be renewed for four years, instead of the House-proposed 10, a deal Specter said wasn't perfect, but better than maintaining the present Patriot Act or having no Patriot Act at all. The bill, including those provisions, is what the House voted on Wednesday.

"Merely sunsetting bad law is not adequate," Feingold said. "We need to make substantive changes to the law, and without those changes I am confident there will be strong, bipartisan opposition here in the Senate."

Frist said he would not support extending the Patriot Act, unrevised, simply to avoid a filibuster fight.

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