The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to extend the controversial Patriot Act, an antiterrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Supporters of the Patriot Act say it gives law enforcement important powers to track down and investigate terrorists. Without the Patriot Act, U.S. law enforcement efforts to find terrorists would be significantly harmed, members of former President George Bush's administration argued.
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a digital rights group, both protested the Judiciary Committee's decision to move the bill forward.
Parts of the Patriot Act would expire at the end of the year if Congress doesn't renew them. The Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 11-8 to approve the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act with a handful of amendments.
One of the most controversial portions of the bill allows the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain warrantless subpoenas to get personal information from Internet service providers, telephone carriers and other businesses.
The National Security Letter (NSL) program allows the FBI, and potentially other U.S. agencies, to issue letters to businesses or organizations demanding information about targeted users or customers. E-mail messages and phone records are among the information that the FBI can seek in an NSL.
The NSL program does not require government agencies to show probable cause that the target users have committed a crime, and the program does not require that courts approve the subpoena letters. The program also prohibited businesses and organizations from disclosing to the public that they had received a National Security Letter, although in December, a U.S. appeals court struck down that provision as violating free speech guarantees in the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing that decision.
The bill approved in committee Thursday "falls far short" of restoring civil liberties compromised in the original Patriot Act, the ACLU said. The bill makes only minor changes to the Patriot Act, the organization said.
One amendment that failed by voice vote would have limited the NSL program.
"We are disappointed that further changes were not made to ensure Americans' civil liberties would be adequately protected by this Patriot Act legislation," Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "Congress cannot continue to make this mistake with the Patriot Act again and again. We urge the Senate to adopt amendments on the floor that will bring this bill in line with the Constitution."
The committee failed to adequately restore privacy and other civil liberties damaged by the original Patriot Act, CDT said.
"The [Barack Obama] administration deliberately took a wrong turn on civil liberties here," Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO, said in a statement. "The administration even opposed civil liberties protections that President Obama sought as a senator."
The new bill will allow NSLs to be used to "obtain sensitive records about people who are two or three steps removed from the target of an investigation," added Gregory Nojeim, CDT senior counsel.