Domestic Spying Issue Inflames Debate Over Patriot Act Renewal

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

President Bush escalated his attack yesterday on Senate Democrats and four Republicans for blocking efforts to renew the USA Patriot Act, but key lawmakers insisted they will not budge until stronger privacy protections are added to the domestic surveillance law.

In a hard-hitting speech at the White House, Bush rebuked those senators for blocking action Friday to reauthorize the act's key provisions, which are set to expire in two weeks. "That decision is irresponsible, and it endangers the lives of our citizens," Bush said. "In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."

The day before, the president charged that the "delaying tactics" in the Senate could benefit terrorists who "want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage than they did on September 11th."

Democrats hit back yesterday, saying Bush's aggressive use of domestic spying must be curbed by Congress and courts to protect civil liberties. "There is going to be no breakthrough" in the Senate impasse, said Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), adding that "the act as written is bad, and we need time to work it out."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, said of Bush's speech: "Fear mongering and false choices do little to advance either the security or liberty of Americans."

The stalemate marks an increase in tensions between the administration and Congress over Bush's anti-terrorism and surveillance policies and the conduct of the war in Iraq. Although Democrats have led the criticisms, a number of Republican lawmakers have joined in, pressing for a troop withdrawal timetable, a curb on interrogation techniques for detainees and, now, stricter limits on the administration's powers to spy on residents of the United States.

Reid and Leahy want a three-month extension of the existing Patriot Act, which would give the House and Senate more time to negotiate changes that could be locked in for four years. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) repeatedly have said they will not accept a short-term extension.

But some Republican aides said privately that with lawmakers eager to adjourn for the holidays, few viable options exist. If GOP leaders are pushed to the brink, they said, a temporary extension of the current law might be preferable to its expiration.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a leader of the filibuster, said yesterday: "Nobody wants these parts of the Patriot Act to expire. We want to fix them before making them permanent, by including important protections for the rights and freedoms of innocent American citizens."

The Senate fell eight votes short Friday of the 60 needed to end the filibuster and allow a vote on the proposed renewal of the Patriot Act, which the House approved Wednesday. Four Republican senators joined all but two Democrats in voting to sustain the filibuster.

The Patriot Act, approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has made it easier for the FBI to conduct secret searches, monitor phone calls and e-mail, and obtain bank records and other personal documents in connection with terrorism investigations. Critics say the proposed renewal would do too little to let targeted people mount a meaningful challenge to national security letters and special subpoenas used by federal agents pursuing records.

The bill's supporters, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), say it strikes a reasonable balance between providing tools to fight terrorism and safeguarding civil liberties.

Greatly complicating the bid to renew the act was last week's New York Times article disclosing that Bush had signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on citizens and foreign nationals in this country.

Patriot Act provisions set to expire Dec. 31 include those permitting "roving wiretaps" of suspects, FBI access to their business and library records, and the pursuit of "lone wolf" suspects with no known ties to foreign powers or agents.

On Friday, Frist likened the bill's opponents to those who "have called for a retreat and defeat strategy in Iraq." He sounded more conciliatory yesterday, as he sought a way out of the impasse. "Democrats want to fight this war on terror," Frist told reporters at the Capitol. "They want to give our law enforcement appropriate tools as well."

"I really feel that if we work hard, we can pass the Patriot Act [renewal] as written today," Frist said. "If I could just get people to study it and examine it."

That's unlikely, Reid said. A temporary extension of the law, allowing renewed House-Senate negotiations next year, "is the only way to go," he told reporters. If the law "is not extended," he said, "the full blame is with the president and the Republicans. We have bent over backward to try to accommodate them."

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