House Extends Patriot Act

WASHINGTON — A modified version of the USA Patriot Act passed the House of Representatives Dec. 14, with 44 Democrats joining 207 Republicans in a vote to extend the controversial anti-terrorist bill past its Dec. 31 expiration date.

The move brings the Patriot Act extension to the Senate, where, despite the possibility of a Democratic filibuster, few believe it will fail to pass.

Although the Patriot Act met with overwhelming approval when it was first enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a sizeable number of politicians on the Hill have since expressed regret that it was passed so quickly.

Designed to expand government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against terrorists, the controversial law has stirred vigorous debate among free speech and privacy advocates who argue it goes too far.

Now, a bipartisan group of senators have joined in the Senate to demand the Patriot Act be reevaluated before an extension is granted.

“If we enact the bill as written, a little bit of the liberty tree will have died,” Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said during a news conference late Dec. 13.

McGovern and about a dozen other Republican and Democratic senators have said the Patriot Act bestows too much power to the government, especially when it comes to investigating private transactions, bank records, library use and medical or computer records.

Regardless of dissenting opinion in the Senate, some of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act show no signs of being cut. These would include existing legislation that authorizes roving wiretaps and permits secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries, all of which are expected to remain part of the Patriot Act for the next four years.

The only significant amendments to the Patriot Act since its passing came last July, when the House adopted provisions that require federal agencies to report to Congress on their data mining activities; require the FBI director to personally authorize demands to libraries for the release of business records; and give people served with national security demand letters the right to consult with counsel and challenge the letters in court.