Congress acts to prevent lapse of Patriot Act provisions

May 27, 2011

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Congress approved a four-year extension of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act Thursday, overcoming mounting opposition from both political parties to narrowly avoid a lapse in the terrorist surveillance law.

President Obama, attending an international summit in France, made plans to awake at 5:45 a.m. local time to review and approve the bill, directing that it be signed in Washington by automatic pen before the provisions expired at midnight eastern time, with just minutes to spare.

The administration had warned Congress that any interruption in the surveillance authority would threaten national security.

Passage came late Thursday after a protracted political struggle that played out over several months, a sign of increased unease with powers granted to the federal government to investigate citizens and foreigners in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, many of them elected with backing from the conservative tea party movement, resisted attempts to extend the three expiring provisions of the act.

Dramatizing the debate this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), held up Senate floor proceedings to protest what he characterized as an unconstitutional overreach by the federal government into private affairs.

Earlier this year, unexpected opposition from a block of House Republicans thwarted a short-term extension of the retiring provisions, temporarily derailing the bill in that chamber.

Democrats similarly have opposed the post-Sept. 11 government authority and this week’s standoff risked an expiration of the provisions at midnight.

“We all want security – nobody wants what happened on 9/11 to happen again,” Paul said. “But I think we don’t need to simplify the debate to such an extent that we simply say we have to give up our liberties.”

Supporters said that extending the provisions would ensure no disruption in the government’s ability to conduct surveillance that they say has proved crucial to the ability of intelligence agencies to amass information vital to keeping the country safe.

By extending the measures through June 1, 2015, lawmakers codified a compromise with Republican leaders who preferred a permanent extension.

“The Patriot Act has been plagued by myths and misinformation for 10 years,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). “If Congress fails to reauthorize these laws before they expire, America’s national security and that of its citizens will be the most vulnerable in a decade.”

When authorized by Obama, the White House may use an “autopen” to replicate his signature. Similar machines have been used by past presidents, other public officials and celebrities and business officials to replicate their signatures.

One of the sections of the Patriot Act extended by Congress allows federal authorities to listen in on conversations of foreign suspects even when they change phones or locations, so-called “roving wiretap” power.

Another gives the government the ability to access to the personal records of terror suspects, a section often called the “library provision” because of the wide range of personal material that can be investigated.

A third section is known as the “lone wolf” provision because it gives authority to the government to investigate foreigners who have no known affiliation with terrorist groups.

All of the authorities require court order from secret federal courts.

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