Patriot Act Critics Look to Send Reauthorization Battle Into Overtime

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With the U.S. House of Representatives now back in session and the Senate due back in session on Monday, December 12, the final push to amend the USA Patriot Act to protect reader privacy has moved into its final stages. It now appears likely that next week the House will pass a Patriot Act conference committee draft that free speech groups believe does not adequately protect readers' privacy, and the Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP) is asking supporters to be ready to urge their Senators to oppose the Patriot Act conference report when it comes before them sometime next week.

On Wednesday, November 7, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) announced that the current USA Patriot Act conference committee draft, which he signed, had been amended to change the sunsets of Sections 215, 206, and the "lone wolf" provision from seven years to four years, telling reporters that the latest draft was "as good as it's going to get," as reported by the Washington Post. But for proponents of reader privacy and a bipartisan coalition of Senators, the amendments are not nearly good enough.

The current conference committee report is expected to pass easily in the House; however, a group of Senators -- led by Larry Craig (R-ID), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Russell D. Feingold (D-WI), and John E. Sununu (R-NH) -- have threatened to start a filibuster to prevent a vote on the report on the Senate floor. At present, it is unclear whether or not proponents of the conference report will have enough support to cut off debate on the Act.

"I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report, which does not include adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms," Sen. Feingold told the Associated Press.

However, if a Senate filibuster succeeds, it is speculated that proponents of the Patriot Act report may have no choice but to temporarily extend the provisions that are set to expire on December 31, which would represent a significant defeat for the Bush administration. And importantly, sending the battle to amend the Patriot Act into "overtime" would provide supporters of reader privacy an additional three to six months to push for further changes.

In mid-November, the House-Senate conference committee produced a Patriot Act draft conference report that, among other things, failed to include previously approved, critical protections for bookstore and library records in the final version. The news of the legislation spurred a public outcry from numerous free speech and civil liberties groups, including CRP, and on Friday morning, November 18, a bipartisan group of 10 House and Senate members, including Senator Specter held a press conference to announce their contention that the current draft needed further revision.

As it currently stands, the conference report does not include the Senate provision limiting searches to the records of suspected terrorists. The conference bill outlines a new procedure that would allow recipients of Section 215 orders to challenge them in the secret FISA court, but the rules for filing an appeal have been left to the FISA court to determine. The bill makes permanent many Patriot Act provisions and, as noted, resets the sunset provision of Section 215, 206, and the "lone wolf" provision to expire in four years.

With so much at stake, CRP stressed that it is imperative that supporters of readers' right to privacy make their voices heard by calling their Senators and urging them to vote against a cloture motion on the Patriot Act conference report. Sixty Senators must vote for cloture to cut off debate and force a vote. In the absence of cloture, proponents of the conference report will be unable to reauthorize the Patriot Act this year and will thus be forced to temporarily extend the expiring provisions. --David Grogan