Patriot Act Provisions Remain in Limbo

A new expiration date looms for some parts of the USA Patriot Act. Congress apparently is not close to agreement on some provisions, including authorization for the FBI to demand library and other business records.

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This Friday, 16 of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act will expire unless Congress does something about it. Disagreement over those provisions led to a Senate filibuster in December. One month later congressional and White House negotiators have made no real progress. And recent revelations about government eavesdropping have made some lawmakers even more nervous about giving up any civil liberties protections.

NPR's Larry Abramson has more.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting

When we last left our hero, the Patriot Act was hanging by its fingernails, desperately close to the expiration date that would throw law enforcement back into the pre-9/11 world, at least according to some interpretations. Now, one month later, the law still dangles above the abyss. Senate Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter has been reaching a hand across the chasm, trying to win endorsement of a House-Senate compromise. This week on the Senate floor, Specter reminded his colleagues that he'd already extracted major concessions from the House.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): We took it to the House and got all of them, the most important of which was the sunset provision, changed from seven years to four years, and then still additional changes were requested and they cannot, could not be accommodated.

ABRAMSON: But, there's been little response to Specter's warning that the White House and the House feel they've already compromised and will not budge another inch. Meanwhile, Democrats and some Republicans who back the filibuster are more adamant than ever about two issues: first, they want to prevent the FBI from using the Patriot Act to search the records of people with no clear ties to terrorism; and they want limits on national security letters, a common investigative tool which gives the FBI access to information without court oversight. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont:

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee): This is not the way we do business in our country. It is too easy for completely innocent people to get caught in this, completely innocent people to have their lives or their businesses ruined, and the worst part about it, it does absolutely nothing to catch terrorists.

ABRAMSON: Recent revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency have only made negotiations more difficult. There is no serious discussion of addressing NSA spying within the Patriot Act, but the issue has re-energized civil liberties groups who say they won't get fooled again. Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology says he feels misled. Dempsey testified at a number of Patriot Act hearings where he rolled up his sleeves to hammer out compromise language with administration officials.

Mr. JIM DEMPSEY (Policy Director, Center for Democracy and Technology): Spending a lot of time arguing over some relatively modest changes. The administration was going off completely outside of any statute, outside of any congressional authorization, in doing what it wanted to do.

ABRAMSON: The White House still wants senators to see the light and pass the version the House approved and which the Senate filibustered. In a preview of Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Bush told reporters this past week he will use the speech to gently nudge lawmakers.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress must reauthorize the Patriot Act so that our law enforcement and intelligence and Homeland Security officers have the tools they need to rat out the terrorists.

ABRAMSON: But the real power to end this stalemate is in the hands of Senator John Sununu. The New Hampshire Republican helped make the December filibuster a success and he is now seeking common ground with the White House.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): Look, I think there is a real opportunity to resolve these differences and get this done. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have to keep coming back to temporary extensions.

ABRAMSON: Sununu says he's optimistic, but he would not give any concrete reasons for his hopeful attitude. Whatever happens, it will be a big challenge to get the work done by Friday. Stay tuned for at least one more temporary extension and more cliffhanger action as our story continues. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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