The U.S. House of Representatives sent Pres. Obama a bill extending three often-contested provisions of the Patriot Act on the evening of February 26, two days before the sections were due to expire. Approved by a vote of 315–97 the night after the Senate passed the bill by voice vote, H.R. 3961 extends until February 28, 2011 the surveillance sections, which have prompted repeated statements of concern from library organizations and civil-liberties groups. The president is expected to sign the legislation. [UPDATE: Pres. Obama signed H.R. 3961 into law February 27.]
Although several lawmakers introduced reform bills last fall, none of them have yet made it to the Senate floor for consideration. The bills sought to reinstitute privacy protections for U.S. citizens by tightening judicial oversight of Section 215, known as the library provision for authorizing the Justice Department to conduct searches of library and bookstore records, in the investigation of suspected terrorist activity.
The reform bills had also sought to increase oversight of Section 206, which permits the issuance of a roving “John Doe” wiretap on an unidentified individual or facility, and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, known as the lone wolf provision because it allows the government to surveil non-U.S. citizens who are not part of a foreign organization.
“Congress refuses to make reforming the Patriot Act a priority,” said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a February 25 statement that followed an ACLU letter (PDF file) to the House urging representatives to reject the reauthorization. “We shouldn’t have to live under these unconstitutional provisions for another year.”
Praising the extensions as demonstrating “a growing recognition that these crucial provisions must be preserved,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) told MSNBC February 25. “Recent terror attacks, such as those at Fort Hood and on Christmas Day, demonstrate just how severe of a threat we are facing.”
“The American Library Association understands why the Democratic leadership has to go with a clean reauthorization, but that doesn’t take away the disappointment we have,” said Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA’s Washington Office, in the February 25 Washington Post.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also expressed disappointment. “I hope that this vote today will not stop my colleagues from continuing to improve our intelligence-gathering laws,” he told Politico.com February 25.