Freedom’s Just Another Word for Everything to Lose

Ignoring both protests from civil liberties groups and the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives renewed the USA Patriot Act Thursday, voting mostly along party lines, seeking to make permanent the government’s unprecedented powers to investigate U.S. citizens.

Sixteen provisions of the 2001 law, hastily enacted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, are due to expire at the end of this year unless renewed by Congress. President Bush, who has repeatedly called on lawmakers to make the entire law permanent, commended lawmakers for approving the measure.

“The Patriot Act is a key part of our efforts to combat terrorism and protect the American people, and the Congress needs to send me a bill soon that renews the act without weakening our ability to fight terror,” the president said in statement.

The House reauthorized the act by 257-171 with several changes designed to increase judicial and political oversight of some of its most controversial provisions. In the Republican-controlled chamber, 44 Democrats supported the bill while 14 Republicans opposed it.

Republicans repeatedly argued throughout the 11-hour debate that the latest explosions in London showed how urgent and important it was to renew the law.

“Passage of the … act is vital to maintaining the post-9/11 law enforcement and intelligence reforms that have reduced America’s vulnerability to terrorist attack,” Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner told lawmakers.

Republicans also added a new provision to apply the federal death penalty for terrorist offenses that resulted in death and another establishing a new crime of narco-terrorism to punish people using drug profits to aid terrorism. These offenders will now face 20-year minimum prison sentences.

The original act allowed expanded surveillance of terror suspects and gave the government the ability to go to a secret court to seize the personal records of suspects from bookstores, libraries, businesses, hospitals and other organizations — the so-called “library clause.”

House Republicans agreed last week that this clause — perhaps the most contentious — and another allowing so-called roving wiretaps, which permits the government to eavesdrop on suspects as they switch from phone to phone, would be renewed for only 10 years instead of being made permanent.

The Senate judiciary committee voted unanimously to recommend its own version of the act on Thursday, which included only four-year renewals of these two clauses. The full Senate is expected to take its bill up in the fall.

The House also passed an amendment requiring the director of the FBI to personally approve all requests for library or bookstore records and a number of other amendments designed to add civil liberty safeguards to the bill.

However, Democrats who mostly supported the original law in 2001, were not mollified and said the law still posed a potentially grave threat to personal freedoms.

“The bill before us fails to assure accountability,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Today, we are deciding whether the government will be accountable to the people, to the Congress and to the courts for the exercise of its power.”

Republicans said there had been no documented instances of civil liberty abuses since the act was originally passed in 2001. However Democrats said the government had requested individuals’ library records more than 200 times.

Democrats also complained that the Republican leadership refused to allow debate on several of their key amendments and opted instead to ram the law through on a party-line vote.

“This is an abuse of power by the Republican majority which has deliberately and purposely chosen to stifle a full debate,” said Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer.

A coalition of liberal and conservative civil liberties groups, formed to oppose reauthorization of the law in its current form, this week called on lawmakers not to rush to reauthorize the bill without further debate.

“Certain sections of the law extend far beyond the mission of protecting Americans from terrorism and violate ordinary citizens’ constitutional rights, especially the right to privacy,” said former Republican Rep. Bob Barr.

Leading opposition from the left, the American Civil Liberties Union said the bill gave the FBI extraordinary power to obtain personal records, search individuals’ homes or offices without their knowledge and to use a secret court to obtain personal date on ordinary Americans.