President Bush visited this city's busy port Wednesday and renewed his call for Congress to extend the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which gives government wide latitude in investigating suspected terrorists.
Calling the law a potent weapon against terrorism, Bush said it gives law enforcement authorities the tools they need to stop terrorists before they strike. "This is no time to let our guard down, and no time to roll back good laws," he said. "The Patriot Act is expected to expire, but the terrorist threats will not expire."
Bush said the law, enacted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, gives law enforcement and intelligence agencies new authority to share vital information.
He also credited the measure with helping authorities break up potential terrorist cells in several states.
"The Patriot Act hasn't diminished American liberties," Bush said. "It has helped to defend American liberties."
The Patriot Act includes 16 provisions that are set to expire at the end of the year unless renewed by Congress. Although most of the measures are not controversial, lawmakers are battling over the fate of several key surveillance and search provisions and whether to limit them or make them permanent. A vote on reauthorizing the Patriot Act is scheduled for today in the House, which is expected to approve it easily.
The situation is more complex in the Senate, where dueling bills from the judiciary and intelligence committees lay out starkly different approaches to the law.
The intelligence panel's version, sponsored by Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), would make the Patriot Act permanent and would also allow the FBI to issue administrative subpoenas and to more easily monitor mail as part of terrorism investigations, as advocated by the Bush administration. A separate bill proposed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would add greater congressional oversight and would limit the government's powers in some areas.
Many civil liberties leaders and others have criticized the law as going too far in giving law enforcement authorities broad tools to investigate potential criminals. As a result, they say, it poses a threat to the privacy of law-abiding Americans by allowing authorities to employ measures such as roving wiretaps, and by giving them access to medical and library records in the course of investigations.
Bush said those techniques are governed by close oversight by the courts and others. He called them necessary in the war against would-be terrorists.
"This is a new kind of war," he said. "We are dealing with people who hide in the shadows of our cities. They kind of lay low, then they show up with deadly devices."
During his visit, Bush also showcased efforts to secure the nation's ports. He said new technology, the posting of U.S. customs inspectors at foreign ports and increases in federal grants have given the nation a better handle on the vast amount of cargo that continuously flows into the nation.
Before his speech, Bush toured the port and had an up-close look at a machine that is able to scan thick metal shipping containers for potential threats.
Still, critics in Congress, who have pushed unsuccessfully for more spending for port security, say the nation's ports remain unsafe. A report this year by the Government Accountability Office said U.S. ports remain vulnerable to terrorism, despite the increased spending and security efforts.
"Keeping our port and our people safe from terrorism is one of my top priorities, but it hasn't been a top priority for the president," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said in a statement. "We don't need port photo ops from the President; we need dollars for port security."
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman echoed that view.
"There is a dramatic, dangerous gap between what the port gets and what the port needs," Lierman said.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.