Congress Further Extends Patriot Act

Congress has extended the Patriot Act by at least another five weeks. Linda Wertheimer talks to Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) who blocked the reauthorization of the Patriot Act last December. Sununu was one of four Republicans who joined Democrats on the issue in order to clarify provisions of the Patriot Act.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The House and Senate have voted to extend the Patriot Act for five weeks. Sixteen of the laws most controversial provisions were to expire today. This is the law's second short term extension in recent months. Congress failed late last year to come up with a permanent version when some Senators filibustered the bill demanding more protections for civil liberties.

Senator John Sinunu of New Hampshire is one of four Republicans who joined Democrats in block re-authorization of the Patriot Act. He met with White House and Justice Department officials last week to talk about changes he would like to see in the law.

Senator JOHN SINUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): The bottom line is when you give law enforcement tools and powers to do their job you want to make sure you balance the interest of innocent Americans. That we give people the right to take objections to the subpoena power, the power to confiscate records, take those objections to court. If there's a gag order, a restriction on your ability to talk about the subpoena, you ought to be able to object to that in court. There is a provision that requires the automatic disclosure of the name of your lawyer if you seek legal advice; I think it's unnecessary, and it could have the effect of discouraging people of seeking legal advice in the first place. And I don't think that's really the goal of this legislation.

We want to make sure we respect the right of due process, and that we're as clear as possible in setting specific standards for getting these powers in the first place.

WERTHEIMER: So what you're trying to do, then, is to give people who are being pursued under the Patriot Act by some agency of the government some sort of way of asking the question, does this really have to happen?

Senator SINUNU: Exactly. I mean, what civil liberties are all about are making sure that Americans, especially those that aren't guilty of any crime, have an opportunity to seek due process or representation, have an opportunity to argue their case, and in the case of these gag orders, argue their case before a judge.

WERTHEIMER: Now the House and Senate negotiators worked something out last December. It did not go far enough, the compromise they produced?

Senator SINUNU: There's no conference report made significant changes and improvements, but I don't think we did as much as we could. And we were raising these concerns from early on. We weren't raising this just in November and December, in the heat of the moment at the end of the session. Unfortunately, the White House waited very long to get engaged.

We have only a few areas of disagreement, and that's why we requested of such a short term extension. Because I feel we could get these issues resolved in a matter of weeks, if not days.

WERTHEIMER: Could the Congress just keep on voting these extensions if you can't reach some kind of agreement?

Senator SINUNU: I don't think that's desirable at all. One, I believe we can resolve the few differences that remain, and two, it just doesn't serve us well to keep coming back to these issues, to keep passing the short-term extensions.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Sinunu, on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on President Bush's domestic surveillance program; in effect, warrantless wiretaps of Americans. Members of Congress as well as members of the general public have concerns that the government has overreached here. Do you think that that will affect efforts to re-up the Patriot Act?

Senator SINUNU: I don't think so, and I don't believe it should. We want to get this work completed. The domestic surveillance question, we don't have all of the facts or information, even the relevant committees, the intelligence committee, doesn't quite have all the facts or information available as to what the program consisted of. And the Judiciary Committee wants to hear it clearly from the Administration about their rationale.

But that is really a question surrounding a single specific program. What we're trying to complete with the Patriot Act is a very broad, comprehensive piece of legislation that deals with law enforcement powers. It's much more comprehensive and I do think it serves us well to get this work completed and get the bill signed into law.

WERTHEIMER: Republican Senator John Sinunu of New Hampshire. Senator, thank you very much.

Senator SINUNU: My pleasure. Good to be with you.

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