Paying attention this time around

The longer Congress studies the Patriot Act, which it did not at all when the legislation passed immediately after 9/11, the more misgivings it has, and about time.

If key provisions of the act are not soon renewed, they will expire at the end of the year, and it might not be such a bad thing. Congress could then start with a blank sheet of paper and update federal powers to fight terrorism without giving the government a blank check to snoop.

A small bipartisan group of senators wants to extend the current law for three months while the lawmakers further mull revisions. Another proposal would extend the act for a year with Congress revisiting it after the November elections. Whatever their merits, the proposals reflect a widespread uneasiness about the law, aggravated by the Bush administration’s general refusal to be held accountable for how it used the act.

The existing act makes broad incursions into constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure and those safeguarding the right of privacy. It frees federal agents in search of records held by a third party from going before a judge, establishing probable cause and obtaining a warrant. The act imposes an indefinite gag order on the organization being searched and makes it all but impossible to challenge the warrant in court.

And the existing act expands the use of National Security Letters, again a type of search warrant that skips judicial approval. Originally, NSLs were to be used only in espionage cases, but the Patriot Act basically expanded that to cover anything related to terrorism. It was generally assumed that NSLs were being used sparingly, but then The Washington Post reported that over 30,000 had been issued in the course of just one year.

And little things keep being quietly added to the act as it is revised. Most recently, the ACLU pointed to an obscure provision that would arguably give the Secret Service greater powers to keep demonstrators and political opponents far removed from any event involving the president. The use _ or misuse _ of the Secret Service to screen attendees at President Bush’s tightly scripted and controlled rallies makes this a not unreasonable fear.

If the revamped Patriot Act is renewed, it has one virtue. These provisions will not be made permanent, as the White House wanted, but will expire again in four years.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)