Patriot Act gets boost from 9/11 hearings

Controversial law faces a renewal vote this year. Bush calls it a 'needed tool' in helping to catch suspected terrorists.

While the Bush administration took heavy hits in last week's 9/11 commission hearings, the hearings may have given the White House a public relations boost on one important front: its effort to win renewal this year for the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Pressed by commissioners as to why their agencies failed to "connect the dots" before the 9/11 attacks, law enforcement and intelligence officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations cited powers now included in the Patriot Act. The act, for example, makes it easier for agencies to to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists, and lets agents conducting criminal probes share information with intelligence officers, and vice versa.

That's one reason why the White House - embattled on many fronts - is touting the Patriot Act this week in events in Hershey, Pa., Monday and Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday.

In his weekly radio broadcast on Saturday, President Bush stepped up his bid to renew Patriot Act provisions slated to sunset at year end, describing the act as a "needed tool" in the war on terror. To abandon it would "demonstrate willful blindness to a continuing threat," he said.

The new push by the White House doesn't mean Bush won't continue to face criticism from civil libertarians for the controversial act. But it does make it harder for Democrats to score points on an issue that has been a sure-fire applause line against Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft in campaign stump speeches.

The vote on renewing the act will be a tough one for many conservatives, who worry that the law gives big government too much power to delve into private life.

"The idea of retaining the parts of the Patriot Act that are set to expire is going to split the Republican Party. It will be a very decisive and a very close vote," says Tim Lynch, director of the project on criminal justice at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Although Bush's Democratic rival for the White House, Sen. John Kerry, voted for the Patriot Act, he been critical of civil liberties abuses on the campaign trail. In response to the president's radio address this weekend, he called for "reforming our intelligence system and strengthening our antiterrorism laws" so that agencies can communicate with each other.

"The Patriot Act, however, does not do that on its own, which is why it needs to be fixed," he said.

The USA Patriot Act passed the Senate on Oct. 25, 2001 on a vote of 98-1, with Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin the lone dissenter. A key selling point of the new law was that it made it easier for the FBI to share information with other intelligence agencies and to conduct electronic surveillance.

"Everything that has been done in the Patriot Act has been helpful, I think, while at the same time maintaining the balance with respect civil liberties, with the exception of FISA searches," former US Attorney General Janet Reno told the 9/11 commission on April 13.

But the new law has prompted opposition from dozens of municipalities nationwide opposed to features of the new law, such as granting law enforcement access to the library records of individuals who are suspected terrorists.

Some 71 percent of Americans disapprove of a feature in the law that allows agents to delay telling people that their homes have been secretly searched, according to a Feb. 16-17 USA Today poll.

In anticipation of such concerns, Congress wrote sunsets into the new law of some of the most controversial sections. These include: powers to conduct searches without notifying subjects, roving wiretaps (of an individual's home phone and cellphone, for instance), a "supersubpoena" that puts a gag order on anyone who receives it, and wiretapping procedures that bypass Fourth Amendment standards for searches.

The act has also allowed wiretapping of suspected terrorists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law that existed before 9/11 but had been difficult to apply to suspected terrorists.

The push to make key provisions expire came both from liberal Democrats, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and from Republican Richard Armey, then House majority leader.

When Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch proposed extending the Patriot Act's provisions, Leahy promised a "stiff floor fight."

Indeed, if President Bush tries to force an early vote he's likely to face strong opposition, especially from Republicans in the House. There, a Judiciary Committee spokesman said Friday that the vote is not expected until 2005.

A bipartisan Senate bill would curb law enforcement's power to conduct searches without notifying suspects and limit "roving wiretaps." The bill also includes new protections for libraries and booksellers.

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