Patriot Act renewal 'a can of worms'

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   Jan. 21, 2004 at 9:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The call from President Bush for Congress to pass a law extending the time-limited provisions of the controversial anti-terror law known as the Patriot Act received a mixed reception on Capitol Hill Wednesday and it was unclear what the end result of any legislation would be.

Seventeen key provisions of the act, mostly ones which extend the surveillance powers of the federal government, are due to expire Dec. 31, 2005, if no fresh legislation is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Bush called the act "an essential tool" in the fight against terror.

But the provisions subject to expiration, and indeed many other parts of the law, which was enacted in the angry, fearful aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are seen by critics as an unwarranted extension of government authority.

Many of the law's fiercest critics are on the conservative wing of the Republican Party, normally considered the president's political base, and even the administration's allies in Congress responded cautiously to the call for the act to be renewed.

"We are already involved in a careful, bipartisan re-evaluation of the Patriot act," said Margarita Tapia, a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We will look closely at any valid criticisms in the course of our reauthorization."

Senior lawmakers and their aides from both houses and both sides of the aisle told United Press International Wednesday that it was unlikely Congress would leave the law intact and permanent.

Several of the 17 provisions due to expire next year -- those highlighted by Bush in his speech Tuesday night -- extend powers the government already has to investigate drug dealers or mafia bosses to terrorism cases as well. These are thought the most likely to be extended.

"To the extent that these are powers that are already on the books (renewal is) a no-brainer," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Other provisions merely "bring the law up to date with technology," in the words of one judiciary committee staffer -- allowing wiretap warrants to be applied to several different phones employed by the same individual.

Even the fiercest critics of the law agree that some provisions are valuable. "There are some parts no one has any problems with," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., told UPI.

But many of the other clauses are more controversial. One provision that drew particular ire from critics is the so-called sneak-and-peek power allowing the federal government to conduct secret searches of people under investigation, and only tell them about it later. The "sneak-and-peak" provision does not expire but congressional sources told UPI there would be an effort to get it repealed as the renewal legislation moves forward.

"The very purpose of the sunset was to provide Congress the opportunity to revisit these new laws and learn from the experiences and public debate that was sure to follow (the law's) passage," said the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. in a statement.

Democrats and some Republicans say they are unhappy with the way the Justice Department has responded to requests for information about the implementation of the act.

"Getting information from the Justice Department under Ashcroft is like pulling teeth," said Sen. Grassley last year.

This unease has led some to call for a wholesale re-examination of the law.

"Rather than blindly reauthorize the sweeping legislation," the statement continued, "it is important to conduct a vigorous, bipartisan examination of the Patriot Act, focused on balancing the need to address the threat of terrorism and the need to protect our constitutional freedoms."

"Once you start looking at (the law) again," said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the House Judiciary Chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., "you open up the whole can of worms."

And quite a can of worms it may well prove to be.

Rep. Conyers indicated that he would be happy to see the vast majority of the powers in the act repealed, calling the law "toothless."

"If you don't have a string of convictions after a couple of years, what use is it?" he asked, saying that the investigative provisions of the law had yielded few results.

On the other hand, "I am certain that (the administration) will use this (process) to ask for more (powers), jus as we will use it to try and cut out the parts we don't like," said one Democratic congressional aide.

"This could be a back door for them to make all kinds of mischief," said Beryl A. Howell, who was Leahy's senior staffer on the issue when the act was before him as chairman on the Judiciary Committee. She pointed out that the administration had originally asked for a raft of powers which congress had denied them.

"It is fairly well-known that they have prepared drafts of new legislation," added Conyers, referring to the so-called Patriot II proposals, leaked from the Justice Department last year. "For lawmakers this is unsettling, we are being kept out of the legislative loop, they are writing the law down there (in Justice department headquarters) at Constitution and 9th and then coming to us and saying: 'We are the experts, we know how to keep the country safe, this is what we need to fight terrorism.'"

In addition, it is unclear not just how any debate about the law would pan out, but when it might take place.

"The chairman has made it clear," says Lungren of Rep. Sensenbrenner, "that he will begin consideration of the act next year in a series of hearings.

"The President laid down no timetable for renewing the act (in his speech), and that was duly noted... The proper time for this is in 2005, when we will have had more time to consider the issues and more experience of how the law works in practice."

But Howell believes that unjustified fears about the Patriot Act will cloud the judgment of lawmakers and the public, whenever the debate takes place.

"There's a disconnect between what is actually in the act and the risks that it posses to civil liberties and the fears that people have about the unfettered, unilateral exercise of executive branch and law enforcement authority over individuals.

"People are worried about indefinite detention of those labeled unlawful combatants. They are worried about people being held incommunicado, without access to lawyers. They are worried about trial by military commission. None of those things are in the Patriot Act, but people get mixed up."

Howell says the law actually not only scaled back the demands of the administration, but put in place new checks and balances on existing powers.

"People talk about 'sneak and peek,'" she said. "There was 'sneak and peak' before the Patriot Act. The act actually put important safeguards into place over this power."

Leahy suggests that the unwillingness of the administration -- which he says is the most "secretive... resistant to congressional oversight, and ... disposed to acting unilaterally" than any other he has known in 25 years in the senate -- to cooperate with lawmakers has fuelled public suspicion about the law and its implementation.

"By ignoring oversight requests until answers are moot or outdated, and responding in only vague and conclusory fashion, if at all, the Justice Department frustrates our constitutional system of checks and balances, and sows the sort of public distrust that now accompanies the act," he told congress recently.

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