The legislation passed Tuesday evening in the House after several months of debate over how to balance Americans’ right to privacy with a need to foil potential terrorist threats. Political standoffs twice forced Congress to extend the expiration date of the Patriot Act.
The expiring provisions included one that lets federal officials obtain “tangible items,” such as business records, from libraries and bookstores, in connection with foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.
Other provisions clarify that foreign intelligence or counterintelligence officers should share information obtained as part of a criminal investigation with counterparts in domestic law enforcement agencies. Yet another provision is designed to strengthen port security by imposing strict punishments on crew members who impede or mislead law enforcement officers trying to board their ships.
The president also signed new limitations on the Patriot Act’s powers into law. These new civil liberties protections state explicitly that people who receive subpoenas granted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for library, medical, computer and other records can challenge a gag order in court.
The compromise, crafted by Sen. John Sununu, Republican from New Hampshire, requires that people who receive a National Security Letter provide the FBI with the name of the attorney they have consulted. National Security Letters are subpoenas for financial and electronic records that can be issued without consulting a judge. The Sununu compromise also clarifies that libraries in most cases are not subject to these letters.