Compromise Reached on Patriot Act Renewal

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In Depth

NPR examines what supporters and opponents have to say about the Patriot Act's most controversial sections.

House and Senate negotiators have struck a tentative agreement to extend the Patriot Act, which is currently set to expire at the end of the year. The deal would require the Justice Department to report more fully its requests for information about ordinary citizens.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Most of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act are on their way to being made permanent. Negotiators from the House and Senate have agreed on legislation to do that. The compromise adds new safeguards to protect civil liberties, but many watchdog groups were hoping for a lot more. NPR's Larry Abramson is with us now.

And, Larry, we should say as a reminder that the USA Patriot Act was passed soon after 9/11 and gave law enforcement expanded surveillance powers.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Right.

NORRIS: Let's focus first on the highlights of this new law.

ABRAMSON: Well, the Patriot Act said, in the famous library provision as it's come to be called, that the FBI can get any tangible thing that they believe is relevant to a counterintelligence or a counterterror investigation. And there was a fear that this could lead to fishing expeditions, that they could walk into a library or department store or anywhere and just ask for everybody's records because a terrorist might have visited that place.

Now the Patriot Act would say, under the language that the Congress is finalizing, that the FBI has to submit a statement of facts about why they believe that these records are relevant to the terror investigation. Civil liberties groups say, `Well, that's better than what we had before,' but they still want to limit these kinds of records--these kinds of orders more severely because they say that there's nothing to stop the FBI from sweeping in the records of innocent people. Just because they have to explain why they're sweeping in those records, it isn't going to protect those people from being swept in, in these kinds of large-scale examinations of records.

NORRIS: So it wouldn't necessarily be prohibited.

ABRAMSON: Right.

NORRIS: So--I'd like to ask you about these national security letters, which I understand the FBI has been issuing by the thousands to get specific kinds of information on terror cases.

ABRAMSON: Right. These are orders that the FBI issues on its own without any judicial oversight. And we recently learned in The Washington Post that 30,000 of these were issued in one year since 9/11. The language now makes clear that if, for example, your Internet service provider receives one of these national security letters for your records to see who you've been talking to, they can challenge those records and can seek a lawyer's help. So it allows them to do something about it.

But most civil liberties groups say there's really no reason for a business--your bank or your Internet service provider--to challenge one of these letters because it's not about them; it's about you. And they routinely produce the information that they're requested to see.

And actually, the civil liberties groups, in addition, were trying to get rid of a gag order that prevents a bank or an Internet service provider from saying, `We got one of these orders.' That gag order will remain in place. And, in fact, it says--the Patriot Act in the new language that we're seeing--that you could be put in jail for talking about a national security letter if you were doing it in order to obstruct an investigation.

NORRIS: Now, Larry, many of the groups that are wary about this law complain that not enough is known about how the act is actually used. Does this legislation address that?

ABRAMSON: There will be a lot more reporting about how the Patriot Act and related powers are used. And, in fact, the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department will be doing some new reports in the current language, and that's a pretty aggressive office. They've done a lot of sort of interesting reports about how the Justice Department is using its powers.

Again, civil liberties group say, `Well, that's better than what we had before,' but a lot of this reporting is about aggregate numbers; how many of these orders are issued. We don't actually get to find out why those orders were issued, who was involved, what the specifics are and we don't find out that much about abuses. So, again, they say, `We may just have more data and not a whole lot greater understanding.'

NORRIS: And not that we're keeping score, I guess there are winners and losers in this. Is this a big victory for the administration, or is that the wrong way to look at this?

ABRAMSON: Well, I think it's a big loss for the civil liberties groups. They had high hopes last year for repealing some of these powers, or at least that was the advertising that they were putting out. And then they had a dozen hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, where the civil liberties groups thought that they were making a lot of progress. But you know, the ACLU does best when they can present victims of laws and lawsuits and say, `This person was harmed.' They weren't really able to do that in this particular case, and so they were only able to make limited progress in sort of whittling away these police powers.

NORRIS: Thank you, Larry. NPR's Larry Abramson.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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