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US lawmakers clash on Patriot Act measures

February 6, 2011

AFP, 4 Feb 2011: US lawmakers clashed Friday over how long to extend key provisions of a controversial surveillance law, designed to help authorities thwart terrorist plots, before they expire at month’s end.

At issue were three core measures in the Patriot Act adopted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes to fill what the government complained were gaps in its abilities to track and catch extremists.

The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones; track a non-US national suspected of being “lone-wolf” terrorist not tied to an extremist group; and to seize personal or business records seen as critical to an investigation.

Top Senate Republicans called Friday for the three powers to be made permanent — a step rejected in the original law in favor of “sunsets” to ensure regular reviews by Congress to ferret out possible abuse.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said doing so would give US intelligence and law enforcement officials “the highest degree of operational certainty that’s practicable.”

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, warned that stopping short of permamently extending the measures would “tie the hands of our agents in the field.”

“We must ensure our intelligence personnel have the means to apprehend those who seek to destroy our way of life,” said the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxy Chambliss.

The proposal put them sharply at odds with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, who have called for an extension to December 31, 2013.

The Senate Republican proposal was also at odds with leading Republicans in the House, who unveiled legislation on January 26 that provides for an extension to December 8 of this year.

“This short-term extension is a step toward the long-term reauthorization of important and necessary national security provisions,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith.

US Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper urged top lawmakers in a January 28 letter to extend all three powers and complained of annual renewals.

Congress must “grant a reauthorization of sufficient duration to provide those charged with protecting our nation with reasonable certainty and predictability,” they wrote.

Holder and Clapper said they welcomed congressional scrutiny but warned against “short-term extensions that increase the uncertainties borne by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies in carrying out their missions.”

 

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