An unusual coalition of lawmakers and activists opposed to parts of the USA Patriot Act is mounting a last push to persuade Congress to take more time before voting to extend some of the law's most controversial provisions.
At issue is whether Congress has been rigorous enough in assessing how the Patriot Act - which the White House calls vital to its war on terror - has been implemented. Many lawmakers were stunned by recent press reports, denied but not corrected by the Justice Department, that the FBI has issued as many as 30,000 "national security letters" since the law was passed nearly unanimously in 2001. The letters order private and public entities to turn over records and other private data about Americans - and remain silent about it.
In the run-up to a vote later this week on extending controversial provisions of the act, civil liberties and privacy groups released their own research, based largely on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that they say signals numerous reporting violations and lax oversight.
"Congress should not reauthorize the Patriot Act until these questions are resolved," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, which released FBI documents it had obtained, at a press briefing Tuesday.
On paper, the coalition urging a delay is the strongest to lobby Congress on any issue. Its backers range from conservative and libertarian groups - including the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and gun groups - to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Within the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking to tighten privacy protections wants to put off the vote for three months. (Parts of the Patriot Act are set to expire this month.) If these concerns aren't met, some, including Sens. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin and Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, threaten to filibuster the bill.
"This coalition on the conservative side and the progressive side in support of civil liberties is one of the best things that has happened since 9/11 in protecting our rights," says Senator Feingold. "The problem has been members of Congress who were not willing to stand up to the administration's proposal."
A vote on reauthorizing the Patriot Act is currently slated for Friday, and Feingold says as many as 41 senators may be willing to block it. "We had well over 50 votes to stop this bill before Thanksgiving, because they tried to rush it through," he says. "Whether that holds together as we get closer to Christmas is not clear."
Seven states and nearly 400 counties and communities have approved resolutions critical of the Patriot Act.
In defense of the bill, President Bush has noted that the US has brought charges against more than 400 suspects in terrorism probes, half of whom were convicted. Letting 16 provisions of the Patriot Act expire "would leave law enforcement in the dark," he said during a Patriot Act event on June 9, the eve of congressional hearings. "All 16 provisions are practical, important, and they are constitutional."
The White House sought to make permanent all the act's expiring provisions, but it helped broker a compromise that will do so for all but two: one involving searches of business, library, and medical records, and the other concerning roving wiretaps.
Expanded federal powers to seek library and medical records, Section 215, have attracted the most public concern. Those powers would now become subject to judicial review. But many other features of the reauthorization bill also deserve more congressional attention, critics say.
"The fact that Congress wasn't aware that the FBI has used some 30,000 national security letters over the past few years is an indication that not enough oversight has been done," says Tim Lynch, director of the CATO Institute's project on criminal justice. "The money-laundering sections of the Patriot Act require scores of businesses to track the transactions of their customers and report to the government. It's an aspect of the Patriot Act that doesn't get much attention, but it should. This has huge implications for people's privacy."
Senate and House negotiators say they have come up with a better bill, not a perfect one. "These were long, detailed, extensive negotiations," Sen. Arlen Specter (R), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday on the Seante floor. The fact that sunsets will be four years, not 10 as the House bill specified, "is a major, major, major improvement for civil- liberties interests," he added.
Congress is weighing the following changes to the USA patriot act, Parts of which are up for reauthorization.
• Makes permanent 14 of the 16 expiring provisions.
• Permanently allows intelligence gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution.
• Establishes a judicial review before investigators can seize a company's business records (Section 215). The review is to determine whether the records are relevant to a terrorist probe.
• Limits the use of roving wiretaps (Section 206) to cases in which officials show that a target may thwart surveillance.
• Establishes a judicial review of "national security letters" - FBI letters ordering public and private entities to turn over records and other data about any American. Requires reports to Congress on how often the letters are used.
• Extends the duration of FISA surveillance of non-US persons.
• Requires that people subjected to a "sneak and peek" warrant - in which their property has been searched without their knowledge - be notified within 30 days of the search, unless the case justifies a longer wait. Current law imposes no time limits for notification.
• Places a four-year sunset on Sections 206 and 215.
Sources: Senate Judiciary Committee, House Judiciary Committee