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Domestic Surveillance in Doubt as Patriot Act Expiration Looms

4 years ago
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The House and Senate are working through a stack of must-do legislation before the end of the year, but neither has scheduled time to debate expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Without at least a temporary extension, three sunsetting portions of the law that grants domestic surveillance powers to law enforcement will expire on Dec. 31.

The looming deadline coincides with a growing concern among law enforcement officials that homegrown terrorism is becoming a more dangerous and immediate threat. In addition to last month's shooting at Fort Hood, reports came this week that a Chicago man has been charged for allegedly planning the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, and five men from the Washington, D.C., area have been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion they intended to enroll in an al-Qaida terrorist training camp in that country.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a former California attorney general, originally put the sunset dates in place to make the controversial measure easier to pass. That Congress hasn't acted on the landmark law so close to the deadline is "just crazy," he said.

"The very fact that we would come up to the end time here and risk the possibility of letting these things expire suggests that our priorities are askew," said Lungren. "It makes no sense at all. You would hope that after Fort Hood people would come to their senses. We have seen the threat. We better protect ourselves against it."

Lungren blamed House leaders for allowing liberal activists to politicize the issue. "It's the left leading the left on this one. That's the problem," he said. But opponents of the Patriot Act say it tramples civil liberties and abuses constitutional freedoms.

Lungren said unless Congress acts, law enforcement officials will lose the ability to conduct three types of domestic surveillance: "roving" wiretapping, collecting business documents from third parties, and surveilling "lone wolves" -- suspects who have no demonstrated connections to foreign governments but could still be terrorist threats.

But a temporary solution is possible. Politics Daily learned Thursday that two of the staunchest critics of the USA Patriot Act, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), will not object to a short-term extension of the surveillance provisions. Durbin said he'd go along with a temporary extension, with the emphasis on "temporary." Feingold's office confirmed the senator would back an extension "to allow the bill to be fully debated when it can receive adequate attention."

Feingold was the only member of the Senate to vote against the Patriot Act when it first passed Congress in 2001. He and Durbin joined Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) in voting against extending the three provisions when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue this fall.

At a committee hearing in September, Feingold said that external reviews of the Patriot Act have shown abuse of the broad powers that it creates, with law enforcement using authority intended to fight terrorists to investigate drug dealers and criminals instead. "As I recall, it was in something called the USA Patriot Act, which was passed in a rush after an attack on 9/11, that had to do with terrorism. It didn't have to do with regular, run-of-the-mill criminal cases," Feingold said.

Durbin told Politics Daily Thursday that what Congress does next is up to the House, where leaders are discussing a three-month extension of the act to prevent it from expiring three weeks from now. In 2005, Congress passed a one-month extension as end-of-the-year business pushed debate on the hot-button bill off the calendar.

When the legislation is fully debated, the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate can expect vocal opposition, not only from some of the most progressive members, but also from liberal activists. They had assumed that a Democratic president, along with two Democratic houses of Congress, would spell the end of the measure.

MoveOn.org has launched a petition to "Stop the Patriot Act," while the ACLU's Washington legislative office is urging members of the House and Senate to at least amend the act to provide more transparency and oversight.

"Nobody is saying we've got to protect criminals or terrorists, but we've got to protect Americans who have no connection to terrorist activities," said Michael Macleod-Ball, the acting director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "We thought we had the political support across the spectrum to do this, but we haven't seen any support from the Republican side until recently, and there hasn't been sufficient support on the Democratic side to get it done."

Macleod-Ball blamed domestic politics for getting in the way of progress on the issue. "Too many people are afraid of being labeled as 'soft on terrorism,' " he said.

An announcement by House and Senate leaders on the future of the Patriot Act is expected in the next week.

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