House and Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement yesterday on revisions to the USA Patriot Act that would limit some of the government's powers while requiring the Justice Department to provide a better accounting of its secret requests for information on ordinary citizens.
But the agreement would leave intact some of the most controversial provisions of the anti-terrorism law, such as government access to library and bookstore records in terrorism probes, and would extend only limited new rights to the targets of such searches.
For President Bush, renewal of the act would provide a boost as he looks to restore his image as a strong commander in chief in combating terrorism. And Democrats said yesterday that the administration largely got what it wanted -- a major break after lawmakers challenged the White House in recent days on the conduct of the Iraq war, budget policies and tax cuts.
The deal would make permanent 14 Patriot Act provisions that were set to expire at the end of the year. Three other measures -- including one allowing law enforcement agents access to bookstore and public library records -- would be extended for seven years, or three years longer than the Senate had agreed to. The House initially extended the provisions for 10 years but later voted to accept the Senate's four-year extension.
Also extended for seven years is a provision allowing roving wiretaps that follow an individual who may use multiple means of communication, rather than targeting a single phone line. The agreement also extends for seven years a provision of a separate intelligence law passed last year that allows federal investigators to track an individual not connected to a foreign government but suspected of operating as a "lone wolf" terrorist.
The compromise would weaken a block of House-approved death penalty provisions that had elicited concern in the Senate and in legal circles. In the event that a jury could not agree to impose the death penalty on a convicted terrorist, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) had hoped to empower prosecutors to impanel a new jury. The deal also excludes a House proposal to allow a death penalty for terrorist offenses that "create grave risk of death."
The agreement does extend the federal death penalty to those who knowingly transport materials used in a deadly terrorist attack, those who help plot a deadly attack on a mass-transit system, and those who participate in a deadly attack on ships and maritime facilities.
Republicans and Democrats said the agreement is a victory for Sensenbrenner, who defended the expanded government powers enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Civil libertarians and liberal Democrats lamented the deal as another blow to individual rights. And three Democratic senators and three GOP senators declared the agreement unacceptable last night.
"Is Congress standing up to the president? No, not on this one," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), a House Judiciary Committee Democrat.
The agreement, which could go to final votes in the House and Senate before the end of the week, is Congress's first effort to revise the national security measure that became law just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. During last year's presidential campaign, the Patriot Act was elevated to a major political issue, showcased by Bush as a sign of strength in the face of terrorism but maligned by many Democrats as an abuse of power. Hundreds of local governments have passed resolutions decrying the law as an infringement of civil liberties.
When Congress turned to reauthorizing the measure this year, there were bipartisan calls for major changes. House and Senate negotiators have agreed to limit the government's powers in some areas, while rebuffing Bush administration requests for new subpoena powers.
But on balance, the compromise sides with a stronger government hand when terrorism investigations clash with civil liberties concerns.