A bipartisan group of senators blocked reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act Friday, citing concerns about an erosion of civil liberties.
Backers of the sweeping anti-terrorism law warned that the move could leave gaping holes in the country’s homeland security, but lawmakers said they had too many unresolved questions about civil-rights protections.
“Unfortunately, these concerns were not addressed in the conference report, and I’m left with no choice but to work with my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to defeat the bill before us,” Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said during Friday’s debate.
The law’s proponents fell eight votes short of the 60 it would have taken to force a final up-or-down vote on the reauthorization bill. Backers were rushing for a final vote before Congress adjourns for the holiday recess, since the original Patriot Act, enacted in after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, expires Dec. 31.
“God help us if there’s some kind of terrorist attack when we are not protected by the Patriot Act,” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., argued. ” I dare say, the American people will hold us accountable if anything happens and we’re not able to extend and reauthorize the Patriot Act.”
A bipartisan group, led by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, had been threatening to block the reauthorization.
Even with late wording changes approved by the White House and House of Representatives, those senators said the bill could potentially be abused to intrude on average citizens. They called for more safeguards on the use of “roving wiretaps” allowed under the law, and they demanded tougher judicial review before the government issues so-called National Security Letters, allowing investigators to force libraries, Internet providers and other institutions to turn over records of their customers.
“We cannot protect our borders if we cannot protect our ideals,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Friday’s debate was influenced by a New York Times report that President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international telephone calls and e-mail messages within the United States without court-approved warrants.
“These allegations, if true, are deeply, deeply troubling,” Salazar said. “If we needed a wake-up call about the need for additional civil liberty protections … this report is the wake-up call.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at)shns.com)