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Why is Patriot Act under fire if homegrown terror threat is rising?

Amid new terror threats, US security officials say renewing key domestic spying provisions of the Patriot Act is critical to keep the US safe. Yet lawmakers are raising questions about the law.

By Staff writer / February 10, 2011

Even as US antiterror officials warned Thursday of the growing threat of homegrown terrorism, the House leadership scrambled for votes to extend critical provisions of the 10-year-old Patriot Act, including a section that allows the FBI to spy on US-born terror suspects with no known ties to international terror organizations.

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Concerns about civil liberty infractions are shared by incoming tea party-backed Republicans and by Democrats seeing an opportunity to derail a law that's unpopular on the American left. Those concerns played into the political scenario as Republicans scrambled Thursday for a new vote after the extensions narrowly failed in a Tuesday night vote that required a two-thirds majority for passage.

House Republican leaders will bring the extension back for another vote Friday, but under different rules which will allow it to pass with a simple majority. It is expected to pass easily.

"What's going on with the Patriot Act is all about messaging," says James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The Patriot Act has become a metaphor for people's messaging as opposed to a real debate over a real law."

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On Thursday, National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that failure to renew the provisions could stymie important intelligence-gathering operations both domestically and abroad.

"It is virtually impossible to rank, in terms of long-term importance, the numerous potential threats to US national security," Mr. Clapper said. "The United States no longer faces – as in the Cold War – one dominant threat. Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats, and the actors behind them, that constitute our biggest challenge."


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