Senate Votes to Extend PATRIOT Act
WASHINGTON — The US Senate voted Tuesday to extend controversial counter-terrorism search and surveillance powers at the heart of the Patriot Act law adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
With the three provisions set to expire February 28, lawmakers approved legislation to extend them to May 27 by a 86-12 margin, one day after the House of Representatives passed an extension to December 8.
The vote came amid a bitter battle over how long to extend the intrusive powers at the core of the signature legislative response to the terror strikes nearly 10 years ago, and with what safeguards.
The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones; track a non-US national suspected of being a "lone-wolf" terrorist not tied to an extremist group; and to seize personal or business records or "any tangible thing" seen as critical to an investigation.
While the White House backs extending those powers through 2013, the law has drawn fire from an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans tied to the archconservative "Tea Party" movement who say it goes too far.
"I might not have the votes to stop this bill, but we should at least discuss this in public as adults. We should have the opportunity to explain why the Constitution is being violated," said Republican Senator Rand Paul.
"We should talk about how we do not have to give up who we are in order to fight terrorism," he continued, echoing complaints from Democratic foes of the measure as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein warned "the threat against the United States from terrorism, cyber attacks, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and others is at a very high level."
And "intelligence is our best tool in keeping American secure," said Feinstein, a Democrat who has proposed extending the provisions through 2013.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has pushed a rival measure with the same timetable but limiting the government's abilities to use the various powers and greater scrutiny when they do, notably to protect against abuse or needless invasions of privacy.
"I do not support permanent extension of these surveillance authorities," he said. "I support strengthening oversight while providing the intelligence community the certainty it needs to protect national security."
Leahy also called for action well before December, warning that "we should not extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security."
US President Barack Obama has pressed lawmakers for an extension through December 2013, while leading Senate Republicans have called for making the powers permanent but signaled they could back Feinstein's measure.