Friday, February 10, 2006

Senators Compromise to get Patriot Act renewed

Four Republican senators have crafted a deal to renew the Patriot Act, agreeing to strike certain provisions. Those same four joined with Democrats to filibuster the reauthorization of the act last December, saying the law needed stronger civil liberties protections. The agreement, announced yesterday, would extend the law for four years.

Several Democrats said the compromise lacks important civil liberties safeguards, and even the Republican negotiators said they had to yield to the administration on several points. With almost all 55 GOP senators supporting the comprise, and Democrats joining them, the plan appears to have enough support to overcome the Senate filibuster that has thwarted a four-year renewal of the statute for months.

Senators said they think the White House will be able to coax the Republican-controlled House to agree as well, even though House leaders have complained that senators' demands had weakened the measure.

"It was a bipartisan group of us that really believed we could do better . . . to protect civil liberties even as we gave law enforcement important tools to conduct terrorism investigations," Senator John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) told reporters. He said that he and his fellow negotiators had to make more concessions to the administration than they wanted to, but that Congress will monitor the law's application over the coming years.

The changes:
1) Restrict federal agents' access to library records, one of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions. A form of secret subpoena known as a National Security Letter could no longer be used to obtain records from libraries that function "in their traditional capacity, including providing basic Internet access," Sununu and others said in a statement. But libraries that are "Internet service providers" would remain subject to the letters, Durbin said.

2) The Senate proposal would no longer require National Security Letter recipients to tell the FBI the identity of their lawyers.

3) The compromise also addresses "Section 215 subpoenas," which are granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Recipients of such subpoenas originally were subject to a gag order. The proposed Senate measure would allow them to challenge the gag order after one year, instead of the proposed change of 90 days. Sununu said the administration wanted the longer waiting period. "You now have a process to challenge the gag order," he said, defending the concession. "That didn't exist before."

Sununu said he and his allies were disappointed that the compromise does not require agents to "show a connection to a suspected terrorist or spy" before obtaining a Section 215 subpoena. Instead, a FISA judge would have to agree that reasonable grounds exist to believe the items being sought are relevant to a terrorism investigation.

The Patriot Act still has opponents, however. Senator Russell Feingold, D-Wis., the only senator to vote against the bill in 2001, told the Washington Post that the compromise doesn't "address the major problems." The Justice Department, however, has argued that the measure balances the need to stop terrorists with the need to preserve civil liberties. Sources: Washington Post, NPR

Question for librarians:
Does your library provide basic internet access or are you an Internet Service Provider? That's a distinction that is being made in this compromise.


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