How the Patriot Act came in from the cold

The addition of new civil liberties protections made the Patriot Act's final lurch toward passage possible.

It may be one of the most controversial congressional bills in years, but the USA Patriot Act is on the verge of becoming more entrenched than ever in US law.

Congress will almost certainly give final approval to a Patriot Act reauthorization next week. The move may be a political boost for the Bush administration, given that revelations about the White House and warrantless eavesdropping had made many lawmakers worried about granting US law enforcement too much power.

The addition of some new civil liberties protections made the Patriot Act's final lurch toward passage possible. To critics, these changes are but tissue-paper defenses. But the bill's defenders say its provisions are necessary - and that much of the opposition to the Patriot Act is driven, not by the bill itself, but by opposition to administration domestic-security policies.

"It's not about the Patriot Act per se. It involves larger questions of mistrust for the Justice Department and the White House," says James Andrew Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The Patriot Act, the legislative centerpiece of Bush's domestic war on terror, had been bottled up in the Senate for months. In fact, most of the bill expired Dec. 31. Two congressional extensions kept its provisions in force - though the second of these extensions was set to expire on March 10.

The opposition to reauthorization consisted of every Senate Democrat, plus five Republicans, who refused to allow a final vote until their concerns about civil liberties were met.

In the end, the White House and the Senate GOP leadership crafted a package of civil liberties additions that satisfied most Senate critics. Among the most important changes:

Recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations will have the right to challenge the requirement that they not tell anyone about the subpoena.

In addition, recipients of such subpoenas will no longer be forced to provide the FBI with the name of their lawyer.

Finally, the civil liberties package clarifies that most general-purpose libraries are not subject to demands made in so-called National Security Letters for information about suspected terrorists.

At the time of this writing, the Senate was scheduled to give final approval to the overall Patriot Act package on March 2. The House was expected to take its final vote on March 7.

The most adamant opponent of the Patriot Act in the Senate, Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, held that most of the civil liberties changes would have little real effect, in practice. But he acknowledged that in political terms the provisions had worked, and the bill was virtually certain to clear all reauthorization hurdles.

"The die is cast," said Senator Feingold on Wednesday.

Of all the final glitches the bill endured, perhaps none was so difficult as the libraries issue.

Even supporters of the Patriot Act acknowledged that the image of plucky librarians standing up to the Bush administration and refusing requests for information about their users was a politically powerful one.

In the end, the change makes clear that only libraries that are Internet service providers are subject to subpoenas for information. Most libraries are not providers, but only have access to the Internet.

"That is one thing I hope we can clarify and wrap up tightly, so that we can tell our people in the library communities across America that they no longer have to worry about the Patriot Act as a threat to privacy of patrons," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois when the civil liberties provisions were unveiled last month.

With congressional reauthorization, the Patriot Act may now be more entrenched - but that doesn't necessarily mean it is now a permanent part of the US law- enforcement landscape.

Some of its most important provisions will face another reauthorization in four years. Among them are Sections 206 and 215, which allow roving wiretaps and permit secret warrants for books, records, and other items from businesses, hospitals, and some libraries.

The power to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists, who may operate on their own, will also face scrutiny in four years.

Other changes in the bill would increase penalties for attacks against US railroad and mass-transit systems, and for crime and terrorism at US seaports.

It would also put restrictions on cold medicines that can be used to produce methamphetamine, and increase penalties on methamphetamine production and trafficking.

"Most of these provisions are things we actually need," says Mr. Lewis of CSIS.

Many of them were also the subject of interest by law-enforcement authorities prior to 9/11.

Technological change, including the rise of cheap cellphones, has driven many US law agencies to plead for expanded wiretap powers, for instance.

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