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Obama signs Patriot Act extension without reforms

Privacy advocates had called for greater oversight on aspects of the Patriot Act that give the government broad powers. But the version Obama signed Saturday moved through Congress unchanged.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / March 1, 2010

Peggy Miller holds a sign last year that says ''Hernanod says no to the Patriot Act. protest against the war and Patriot Act." Despite many Americans' concerns about the act, Obama signed a one-year extension on it without any new limits, Saturday.

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President Obama signed a one-year extension of three sections of the USA Patriot Act on Saturday without any new limits on the measures that many liberal groups and Democrats said were necessary to safeguard American civil liberties.

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The provisions allow the government, with permission from a special court, to obtain roving wiretaps over multiple communication devices, seize suspects’ records without their knowledge, and conduct surveillance of a so-called “lone wolf,” or someone deemed suspicious but without any known ties to an organized terrorist group.

The Patriot Act drew heavy criticism from Democrats – Obama even once said it needed to be dialed back – during the Bush administration. But experts suggest that a string of foiled terrorist plots over the past year combined with the Democrats' falling ratings amid the healthcare debate blunted any move to reform the act, which was passed in the wake of 9/11.

“We’ve stopped 28 terrorist attacks since 9/11,” says James Carafano, a homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation. “The Patriot Act has been a big part of that."

He says the only disappointment regarding Obama’s extension of the three temporary provisions is that “it was only for one year.” That, he says, may have been done “so they won’t get beat up so much on the left.”

In September, the Monitor covered Congressional hearings on the Patriot Act in which the Obama administration asked for an extension of some of its key surveillance measures. At the time, some Democrats proposed adding oversight to the provisions.

But when the law moved through Congress last week and reached the President on Saturday, a day before the measures were due to expire, it remained unchanged.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long called for the act’s section 215, which gives the government easier access to a suspects’ records, to be curtailed.

Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel, says “this very powerful tool” should be limited to "suspected terrorist only.” Right now, she says, it gives the government overly broad power to seize records in investigations not connected to terrorism.

The ACLU doesn’t want these provisions to go away altogether, she says. “All we want are some common sense checks and balances in there.”

Ms. Richardson said politics was certainly a factor in the Democrats' decision not to pick a fight with Republicans over Patriot Act reforms. “This year has become about bread and butter domestic issues,” she says.

But while many Democrats chose to punt on a Patriot Act revision, she says, some did so “on the premise that the extra year would give more time to work out” adjustments that would narrow its scope. “It will be our goal to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that happens,” she says.

Still, even though Obama was critical of the law as a senator, Republican lawmakers suggest they will resist any move to change the Patriot Act.

"Recent terror attacks, such as those at Ft. Hood and on Christmas Day, demonstrate just how severe of a threat we are facing," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), according to the Associated Press. "This extension keeps Patriot's security measures in place and demonstrates that there is a growing recognition that these crucial provisions must be preserved."

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