Renewing the Patriot Act
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KWAME HOLMAN: Today was the first time the full House of Representatives looked back at the broad domestic counterterrorism powers it overwhelmingly gave the government following the Sept.11 attacks.
Sixteen provisions of the Patriot Act expire at the end of the year, and for the most part, lawmakers urged their renewal, often citing today’s bombings in London as a reason to do so.
REP. JANE HARMAN: If they can strike twice in the heart of London, a city on high alert, then just think what they might try to do in any city in America.
REP. MIKE ROGERS: We are at war. This bill helps protect America and does not suspend the Constitution of the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: But some Democrats argued the law should at least be amended, claiming the government has abused it, often investigating the innocent and arresting terror suspects using questionable evidence. New York’s Jerrold Nadler:
REP. JERROLD NADLER: When you’re expanding police powers and when you’re expanding surveillance powers, the power of government to pry into the private affairs, the books, the records, the medical histories of individual citizens, sometimes it may be necessary for security to do so. But it endangers liberty.
KWAME HOLMAN: The majority of Republicans, meanwhile, rebutted accusations that the anti-terror law had been used to violate civil liberties. Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner chairs the Judiciary Committee, and wrote much of the original bill.
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: For too long opponents of the Patriot Act have transformed it into a grossly distorted caricature that bears no relationship whatsoever to the legislation itself.
KWAME HOLMAN: California Republican Dan Lungren directed his Democratic colleagues toward the results of an investigation of abuses conducted by several House committees.
REP. DAN LUNGREN: The 12 oversight hearings conducted by the Judiciary Committee produced no evidence of abuse relating to the Act itself. I hope other members have taken the time to go to the Intelligence Committee, as I have, to review the documents that are filed pursuant to the Patriot Act by the Justice Department, to see for yourself whether or not you have found any evidence of abuse. I could not find that.
KWAME HOLMAN: The bill before the House today would make 14 of the Patriot Act’s 16 provisions permanent. The remaining two would expire in 10 years.
REP. HOWARD COBLE: These two were sunsetted because among the other sections in the Act, these two seemed to attract most of the controversy.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of those is the library provision, which allows federal authorities secretly to search library and hospital records. Last month, the House voted to scrap it when Vermont’s Bernie Sanders attached an amendment to another bill. But that bill is unlikely to survive negotiations with the Senate. Today, the Republican-written debate rules prevented Sanders from bringing it up again.
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: We voted on that by a 238-187 vote, and now a few weeks later this provision is not included in the bill and the Republican leadership has refused to allow the members to even vote on it. This, my friends, is an outrageous abuse of power and denies the majority of members here the right to put into the bill what they want.
KWAME HOLMAN: Florida Republican Tom Feeney said the library provision, Section 215 as it’s known, is essential, and used the London bombings two weeks ago to support his argument.
REP. TOM FEENEY: There is a bookstore in London in Leeds section, called the Iqra Bookstore, and among the books that Iqra Learning Center sells are extremist Muslim materials.
We now believe that three out of the four terrorists that attacked London two weeks ago and killed 56 people visited frequently this bookstore. If the British authorities had known about the possible link, and had a 215 clause — the main clause being attacked by the opponents of the Patriot Act — perhaps there would be 56 people alive today.
KWAME HOLMAN: There also was heated debate over whether the other enforcement tools in the act should be made permanent — the delayed-notice search warrants, roving wiretaps, and information sharing among intelligence agencies. California Republican Dana Rohrabacher was one of the few Republicans to oppose them.
REP. DANA ROHRABACHER: These powers were not to be permanent. They were designed to help us win the war, not to change our country permanently. And now we have the Patriot Act being handed to us again, but instead it’s being handed to us in a permanent form.
You do not make policy for the United States government protecting the rights and freedoms of our people in an extraordinary time as this, a time of war, and then mandate it so it’s going to be the rule of our country once we live in peace times.
KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan agreed.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: Periodically revisiting the Patriot Act is a good thing to preserve our commitment to making the best and most up-to-date assessment of our law enforcement and intelligence policies; we should include more, not fewer sunsets, and make them shorter, not longer.
KWAME HOLMAN: House members made plans to work late into the evening, debating and voting on some 20 amendments to the Patriot Act. The Senate still has to act on its own set of changes.