Congress on Thursday passed a four-year extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. Following the 250-153 evening vote in the House, the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities headed for the president's signature with only hours to go before the provisions expire at midnight.
Obama said he was pleased the act had been extended. "It's an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat," he said after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A short-term expiration would not interrupt ongoing operations but would bar the government from seeking warrants for new investigations.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he voted for the act when he was a House member in 2001 "while ground zero was still burning." But "I soon realized it gave too much power to government without enough judicial and congressional oversight." Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the provision on collecting business records can expose law-abiding citizens to government scrutiny. "If we cannot limit investigations to terrorism or other nefarious activities, where do they end?" he asked. "The Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by law enforcement to invade Americans' privacy and violate their constitutional rights," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office.
Still, coming just a month after intelligence and military forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was little appetite for tampering with the terrorism-fighting tools
. These tools, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "have kept us safe for nearly a decade and Americans today should be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will continue."
"When the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, we would be giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country, undetected," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. In unusually personal criticism of a fellow senator, he warned that [Rand] Paul, by blocking swift passage of the bill, "is threatening to take away the best tools we have for stopping them."
Two Democratic critics of the Patriot Act, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Udall of Colorado, on Thursday extracted a promise from Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that she would hold hearings with intelligence and law enforcement officials on how the law is being carried out.