Patriot Act Renewal Approved by House

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON – The Patriot Act is closer to getting a new lease on life after the U.S. House of Representatives voted 257-171 on a bill reauthorizing the controversial law that has stirred vigorous debate among free speech and privacy advocates. The bill includes several amendments to the Act, requiring federal agencies to be more transparent to members of Congress in their pursuit of alleged terrorist activities.

However, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made it clear before the bill was drafted that only “clarifications” would be taken into consideration in altering the Act and that anything more substantial would only weaken the government’s ability to track so-called unlawful activities.

The bill, which was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), seeks to permanently extend 14 out of 16 of the Act’s provisions. The two remaining provisions, involving roving wiretaps and access to business and medical records, will only be extended for a two-year period. Forty-four Democrats supported the measure and 14 Republicans opposed it.

Parts of the Patriot Act are set to expire on Dec. 31 and the Bush Administration has been in a clamor to renew as much of the Act as possible, assuring the American public and the Act’s ample number of outspoken critics that it has helped the U.S. stave off additional terrorists attacks. The Act was drafted immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Among the amendments adopted by the House were 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.

Another amendment stated that American citizens should not be the target of a federal investigation solely as a result of their political activities. The amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was agreed to by voice vote.

However, the House rejected a proposed amendment that would have provided that national security letter recipients not be penalized for violating the nondisclosure requirement if they were mentally incompetent or under undue stress, threat of bodily harm, or the loss of their job.

The Bush administration had urged Congress earlier this year to permanently reauthorize all expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on its version of the bill in the fall.