CONGRESS APPEARS poised to renew important counterterrorism provisions before they are to expire at the end of the week. That much is welcome. But it is disappointing that lawmakers may extend the Patriot Act measures without additional protections meant to ensure that these robust tools are used appropriately.
The Patriot Act’s lone-wolf provision allows law enforcement agents to seek court approval to surveil a non-U.S. citizen believed to be involved in terrorism but who may not have been identified as a member of a foreign group. A second measure allows the government to use roving wiretaps to keep tabs on a suspected foreign agent even if he repeatedly switches cellphone numbers or communication devices, relieving officers of the obligation of going back for court approval every time the suspect changes his means of communication. A third permits the government to obtain a court order to seize “any tangible item” deemed relevant to a national security investigation. All three are scheduled to sunset by midnight Thursday.
House and Senate leaders have struck a preliminary agreement for an extension to June 2015 and may vote on the matter as early as Thursday morning. This agreement was not easy to come by. Several Republican senators originally wanted permanent extensions — a proposition rebuffed by most Democrats and civil liberties groups. In the House, conservative Tea Party members, who worried about handing the federal government too much power, earlier this year bucked a move that would have kept the provisions alive until December. Congressional leaders were forced to piece together short-term approvals to keep the tools from lapsing.
The compromise four-year extension is important because it gives law enforcement agencies certainty about the tools’ availability. But the bill would be that much stronger if oversight and auditing requirements originally included in the version from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) were permitted to remain. Mr. Leahy’s proposal, which won bipartisan approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee, required the attorney general and the Justice Department inspector general to provide periodic reports to congressional overseers to ensure that the tools are being used responsibly. Mr. Leahy has crafted an amendment that includes these protections, but it is unlikely that the Senate leadership will allow its consideration.
At this late hour, it is most important to ensure that the provisions do not lapse, which could happen as a result of a dispute between Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over procedural issues. If time runs out for consideration of the Leahy amendment, Mr. Leahy should offer a stand-alone bill later to make the reporting requirements the law.