WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush plugged the Patriot Act and pitched its renewal in his State of the Union address Tuesday. But Congress is also weighing measures to weaken the Patriot Act's power and enhance privacy protections.
Among the leading proposals is the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, now pending in both houses. But the fact that the president mentioned the Patriot Act in his annual address makes it likely to get some attention before its scheduled expiration next year.
The threat of terrorism will not expire next year, Bush noted in his pitch to Congress to renew the law that expands law enforcement's powers for domestic security.
"We must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us," the president said. "And one of those essential tools is the Patriot Act, which allows federal law enforcement to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells and to seize their assets."
This strong rhetoric brought applause from Republicans in the audience, but the Patriot Act and efforts to expand or extend it haven't always been greeted with approval.
Passed in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act expands the powers of law enforcement. It allows greater freedom and scope in efforts such as searching through e-mail and Internet traffic, and placing wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance. It will expire unless reauthorized next year.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans for Tax Reform are among the groups that criticize parts of the law. Of particular concern is the section that allows the government to monitor the actions of ordinary people, according to Jameel Jaffer, ACLU staff attorney. In the past, the government could monitor the activity of spies and terrorists, but now its scope covers everyone, he says.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo calls the Patriot Act "one of the most vital and important tools we've had to combat terrorism since it was passed. To allow those certain provisions to sunset would bring us back to pre-9/11 vulnerabilities, and I don't think anybody wants to go back there."
Also, Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the government "dismantled four alleged terrorist cells in Buffalo, Detroit, Seattle, and Portland" and "brought criminal charges against 255 individuals" because of the law.
Status of Legislation
Still, legislation is pending in both the House and Senate to lessen the Patriot Act's power and enhance privacy protections.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has introduced a bill to protect the rights of individuals. The measure, S. 1552, would enable courts to regulate government investigations more thoroughly; limit the amount of personal information the FBI could get without having shown sufficient cause for suspicion; and limit law enforcement requests for libraries to give them patron's Internet usage data.
Murkowski's office doesn't expect S. 1552 will reach the floor this year, according to Isaac Edwards, Murkowski's legislative director. He says the senator's office may try to attach parts of the bill as amendments to other legislation this year.
Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) introduced the Security and Freedom Ensured Act as S. 1709. The SAFE Act would limit the government's ability to wiretap and search, and declares libraries can't be treated as "wire or electronic communication service providers" for government agencies seeking intelligence on electronic communication habits of patrons.
"The SAFE Act ensures that the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation's fight against terrorism, without impeding that fight," the senator says in a statement. Craig's office said the SAFE Act is still gaining co-sponsors.
Less than a week after S. 1709 was introduced, Representative C. L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho) offered a nearly identical version as H.R. 3352.
All the bills are now awaiting committee action.