By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006
Efforts to extend the USA Patriot Act cleared a major hurdle yesterday when the White House and key senators agreed to revisions that are virtually certain to secure Senate passage and likely to win House approval, congressional leaders said.
The law -- passed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and scheduled to lapse in key areas last year -- makes it easier for federal agents to secretly tap phones, obtain library and bank records, and search the homes of suspected terrorists. Several Democrats said the compromise announced yesterday lacks important civil liberties safeguards, and even the Republican negotiators said they had to yield to the administration on several points.
But with virtually all 55 GOP senators now on board, and Democrats joining them, the plan appears to have enough support to overcome the Senate filibuster that has thwarted a four-year renewal of the statute for months. Senators said they think the White House will be able to coax the Republican-controlled House to agree as well, even though House leaders have complained that senators' demands had weakened the measure.
"It was a bipartisan group of us that really believed we could do better . . . to protect civil liberties even as we gave law enforcement important tools to conduct terrorism investigations," Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) told reporters. He said that he and his fellow negotiators had to make more concessions to the administration than they wanted to, but that Congress will monitor the law's application over the coming years and perhaps revise it.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), one of several Democrats who agreed to back the compromise yesterday, said "it falls far short" of the bill that was passed by the Senate last year but rejected by the House. "But if you measure it against the original Patriot Act . . . we've made progress" toward "protecting basic civil liberties at a time when we are dealing with the war on terrorism," Durbin said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the compromise "a step in the right direction."
The proposal would restrict federal agents' access to library records, one of the Patriot Act's most contentious provisions. A form of secret subpoena known as a National Security Letter could no longer be used to obtain records from libraries that function "in their traditional capacity, including providing basic Internet access," Sununu and others said in a statement. But libraries that are "Internet service providers" would remain subject to the letters, Durbin said.
The Senate proposal would no longer require National Security Letter recipients to tell the FBI the identity of their lawyers.
The compromise bill also addresses "Section 215 subpoenas," which are granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Recipients of such subpoenas originally were forbidden to tell anyone about the action. The proposed Senate measure would allow them to challenge the "gag order" after one year, rather than the 90-day wait in earlier legislation.
Sununu said the administration insisted on the longer waiting period. "You now have a process to challenge the gag order," he said, defending the concession. "That didn't exist before."
Sununu said he and his allies were disappointed that the compromise does not require agents to "show a connection to a suspected terrorist or spy" before obtaining a Section 215 subpoena. Instead, a FISA judge would have to agree that there are reasonable grounds to believe the items being sought are relevant to an investigation into terrorism.
Several liberals condemned the bill. "I am gravely disappointed in this so-called deal," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). "The White House agreed to only a few minor changes" that "do not address the major problems," he said, adding: "We've come too far and fought too hard to agree to reauthorize the Patriot Act without fixing those problems."
But Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the Senate compromise "maintains the tools necessary to fight terrorism while further strengthening safeguards to protect civil liberties."
"We are hopeful that the Congress will now move forward to renew the Patriot Act," he said.
In a related area yesterday, several Democrats said the administration must do more to explain and justify the domestic surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency.
"If they came with the idea that this is going to stop an investigation on the part of the Senate intelligence committee, they were wrong," committee Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told reporters after a closed briefing by two top administration officials. "There were certain kinds of questions which could easily have been answered but weren't. . . . Where we really wanted hard information that was important to us, that gave us the size and the scope and the reach and the depth" of the program," he said, "they were not forthcoming."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the briefing: "For the life of me, I don't understand why the administration won't say, 'Sure, you have a right to look at this. We'd like to explain it.' "
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.