Senate GOP backs down on Patriot Act

Saturday, 10 May 2003 21:53 by: Anonymous
New York Times

Friday 09 May 2003
WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans backed down yesterday from an effort to make permanent the Patriot Act's sweeping anti-terrorism powers, clearing the way for passage of a less divisive measure that would still expand the government's ability to spy on foreign terrorist suspects in the United States.

In an agreement finalized over the last week, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, dropped his effort to extend provisions of the Patriot Act whose broad powers to investigate and track terrorists suspects were scheduled to expire in 2005.

As a result, the Senate voted 90-4 to approve a measure expanding the government's ability to use secret surveillance tools against terrorist suspects who are not thought to be members of known terrorist groups.

Under current law, federal officials are not allowed to seek secret surveillance warrants against non-citizens unless the officials can establish that they are linked to a known terrorist group.

The day's developments represented a key test of the balancing act between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties, and the result delivered a mixed verdict as many lawmakers expressed reservations about giving law enforcement officials too much power to fight terrorism.

"There's a delicate balance between liberty and security," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was one of the authors of the so-called "lone wolf" counter-terrorism measure. "It's a see-saw, and that's the debate that we're seeing now in Congress."

The overwhelming passage of the measure masked intense behind-the-scenes maneuverings in recent weeks over the powers that the federal government had been given to fight terrorism.

Hatch led a push beginning last month to attach to the bill an amendment that would have repealed time restrictions built into the Patriot Act of 2001.

Hatch adopted this tactic because he was said to believe that some Democrats on the judiciary committee were seeking to water down the bill by attaching amendments that would impose tougher legal standards and greater reporting requirements on law enforcement officials in their use of their new counter-terrorism powers. Many Democrats have complained in recent months that the Justice Department has kept them in the dark about its counter-terrorism activities since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hatch's effort to try to make the Patriot Act permanent set off immediate criticism from civil liberties groups and lawmakers, including some Republicans, who said that Congress needed more time to scrutinize how the Patriot Act was working - and whether law enforcement officials were abusing it - before revisiting it.

Jeff Lungren, a spokes-man for Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Hatch's efforts to attach the Patriot Act extension to the "lone wolf" bill would happen over his bosses' "dead body."

As part of a tentative deal reached last week and finalized over the last several days, Republicans on the judiciary committee agreed not to seek a repeal of the Patriot Act's sunset provisions at yesterday's vote on the terrorism bill if Democrats pulled some of their own amendments that the Republicans considered objectionable.

"The Democrats weren't going to give us a vote on the thing unless there were no Hatch amendments, period," said a Republican Senate aide who demanded anonymity. "A lot of the Democrats hated the Patriot Act, even though they voted for it, and they certainly didn't want to see it made permanent. It's an ongoing, simmering debate."

Margarita Tapia, a spokeswoman for Hatch, said that the senator was satisfied with the final result.

"Since a compromise was worked out, we decided not to offer" the amendment repealing the Patriot Act's time restrictions, she said. "But that doesn't change his position. He continues to be opposed to the sunset provisions of the Patriot Act," she said.

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