Lawmakers Make Deal on Patriot Act

House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise to extend parts of the Patriot Act that would have expired at the end of the year. Some added safeguards will also be included, though civil liberties groups say Congress missed a big chance for reform.

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We're getting a better idea how Congress will renew the sweeping powers given the government under the USA Patriot Act. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise to extend parts of the act that would have expired at the end of the year. Some added safeguards will also be included, though civil liberties groups say Congress missed a big chance for reform. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Viewed from the point of view of many moderates, this was congressional compromise at its finest. Members took a relatively hard-nosed House bill, blended it together with a civil liberties-minded Senate bill and addressed major concerns about the anti-terror law. Orin Kerr teaches law at George Washington University.

Mr. ORIN KERR (George Washington University): This is a win-win solution, but probably more of a win for the government. The compromise language is bolstering judicial review and its increasing oversight and that's what a lot of critics of the Patriot Act had wanted. At the same time, the basic structure of the law remains in place.

ABRAMSON: And that's what the Justice Department wanted: to keep every arrow in the FBI's anti-terror quiver. The department will have to provide more information on how it's using the law. The Justice Department's aggressive inspector general will even have a role in overseeing controversial surveillance powers. But despite that oversight, the law makes permanent almost every Patriot power. And for many in the civil liberties community, that leaves a bitter taste.

Mr. JIM DEMPSEY (Center for Democracy & Technology): Big picture, it's a disappointment.

ABRAMSON: Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy & Technology is one of many civil liberties attorneys who spent months urging Congress to roll back the law. He's disappointed that lawmakers, in his view, did little to reform the use of national security letters. These are orders the FBI can issue on its own to a bank or any business to demand information in an investigation. Recent reports indicate the FBI has issued 30,000 of these orders per year with no judicial oversight. New language approved by Congress will let people challenge those orders in court, but Jim Dempsey says that provides no protection for innocent Americans.

Mr. DEMPSEY: The fact is most of the people who get these orders are businesses. They don't really have an incentive to go and spend money challenging the order to protect somebody else's privacy.

ABRAMSON: Critics of the law are bewildered that Congress left in place the single-most controversial provision: Section 215, which gives the FBI access to any business records sought in an anti-terror probe. The new, improved Patriot Act says agents must explain why they want the information. But Lisa Graves of the American Civil Liberties Union says that means little.

Ms. LISA GRAVES (American Civil Liberties Union): Because if the government asserted that there was a national security interest or a diplomatic relations interest or some other criminal investigative interest, the court would be required to treat that as conclusive.

ABRAMSON: Graves says that means there's nothing to stop the FBI from examining the records of innocent Americans. The ACLU and other groups wanted to limit access to records that pertain to the target of an investigation, but former federal prosecutor, Andrew McCarthy, says it's tough to catch a terrorist if you can't look at the records of those around him.

Mr. ANDREW McCARTHY (Former Federal Prosecutor): These types of activities, terrorist activities, tend to be concerted conspiratorial enterprise type activities, and the whole point of an investigation is to see where the tentacles go.

ABRAMSON: The Department of Justice was waiting for the ink to dry on the agreement before commenting. Now members of Congress, who were most critical of the Patriot Act, are vowing to stage a last-ditch revolt to stop final passage of the compromise. That ensures that whatever happens, the debate over the law will go on as before. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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