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Agreement for Extending Patriot Act Unacceptable to Some in Both Parties

By Eric Lichtblau


House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise agreement Thursday to extend the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, but critics from both parties said they found the plan unacceptable because it did not go far enough in protecting Americans’ civil liberties.

The plan is expected to come up for final votes in the House and Senate early next week, but its ultimate passage still appeared uncertain Thursday, with some Democrats threatening a filibuster to block a vote.

After weeks of what negotiators described as extremely difficult negotiations, the compromise plan would keep intact most of the expanded surveillance and investigative powers given to the federal government after the Sept. 11 attacks, permanently extending 14 of 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year. But it would also put in place some additional judicial oversight and safeguards against abuse.

Three of the most-debated measures would have to be reviewed again by Congress in four years, rather than the seven-year window originally favored by some House leaders in a tentative agreement that was reached last month but then derailed by last-minute concerns from Republicans and Democrats.

Those measures involve the government’s ability to demand records from libraries and other institutions, conduct “roving wiretaps” in surveillance operations, and target “lone wolf” terrorists who operate independently of a larger organization.

In another concession to lawmakers who pushed for greater government restrictions, the plan reached Thursday eliminates a proposal that would have made it a crime punishable by one year in prison for anyone receiving certain types of demands from the government for records to disclose them publicly.

The current plan also does not include measures that would have increased penalties on some terrorism-related crimes and would have expanded the government’s ability to seek the death penalty in some cases.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the judiciary committee, acknowledged that he would like to have seen tougher civil liberties safeguards included in the compromise plan, but he faced resistance from House negotiators and administration officials who argued that new restrictions could limit the government’s ability to fight terrorism.

In the compromise plan, he said, “We have cut through the knotty problems to produce what I think is a balanced bill.” Even with its flaws, he said, a bill that he considered “not perfect” was better than no bill at all.

“This bill is too important to have an impasse,” he said. With President Bush pushing personally and repeatedly for the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Specter added that administration officials in particular “have been very worried that they wouldn’t get a bill, and we came perilously close to not getting a bill at all.”