The Senate on Tuesday voted to extend for 90 days the legal life of three post-Sept. 11 terrorism-fighting measures, including the use of roving wiretaps, that are set to expire at the end of the month.
The short-term extension gives lawmakers a chance to review the measures that critics from both the right and left say are unconstitutional infringements on personal liberties.
The Senate vote came a day after the House agreed to extend the three provisions, including two from the 2001 USA Patriot Act, until Dec. 8. The two chambers must now agree on a common approach. With Congress in recess next week, there is pressure to reach a compromise this week.
The measures include the authority to initiate roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and the authority to obtain court-approved access to business records considered relevant to terrorist investigations. The third "lone wolf" provision, part of a 2004 law, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals not known to be linked to a specific terrorist activity.
Without the three provisions, said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., "our law enforcement and intelligence agencies would lack important tools to protect this nation."
But from the inception of the Patriot Act in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the increased surveillance powers have been subject to scrutiny and criticism from both conservatives and liberals who say they violate free speech rights and rights against unwarranted searches and seizures.
"We knew we were in a very emotional state" after the attacks, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He said the provisions give the government access to sensitive personal records such as medical, library and gun records, and "can lead to government fishing expeditions that target, unfortunately, innocent Americans."
Freshman Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky agreed that "in the fear after 9/11 we didn't debate these things fully."
Paul sent out a letter to his Senate colleagues earlier in the day, saying that in the wake of the attacks the government "greatly expanded its own power, ignoring obvious answers in favor of the permanent expansion of a police state."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced legislation, scheduled to be taken up by his committee on Thursday, that would extend the three provisions through 2013 while tightening up oversight. Feinstein has also called for extension through 2013 while several Republicans have proposed that they be made permanent.
"The bill I hope we will consider before May 27 would give the intelligence community the certainty it needs by extending these expiring authorities while also strengthening congressional and judicial oversight," Leahy said.
The White House, in a statement last week regarding the House bill, said it "does not object" to the 10-month extension proposed by the House but would prefer continuing the authority through the end of 2012 because "longer duration provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies require."