WASHINGTON – Democrats have retreated from adding new privacy protections to the nation's primary counterterrorism law, stymied by Senate Republicans who argued the changes would weaken terror investigations.
The proposed protections were cast aside when Senate Democrats lacked the necessary 60-vote supermajority to pass them. Dashing the hopes of liberals, the Senate Wednesday night instead passed — by voice vote without debate — a one-year extension of key parts of the USA Patriot Act that would have expired on Sunday.
Thrown away were restrictions and greater scrutiny on the government's authority to spy on Americans and seize their records.
The House was prepared to approve the extension Thursday, dropping even more extensive privacy protections approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
The Democratic retreat is a political victory for Republicans, who gained new ammunition for their election theme that the GOP can better protect America. The outcome is a major disappointment for Democrats and their liberal allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, who believe the Patriot Act fails to protect Americans' privacy and gives the government too much authority to spy on Americans and seize their property.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that the bill with privacy protections had been approved in committee by a bipartisan majority. He said the measure "should be an example of what Democrats and Republicans can accomplish when we work together, but I understand some Republican senators objected to passing the carefully crafted national security, oversight and judicial review provisions in this legislation."
But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on Leahy's committee, said Thursday that any changes to the Patriot Act would weaken it.
"Recent terror attacks, such as those at Ft. Hood and on Christmas Day, demonstrate just how severe of a threat we are facing," Sessions said. "This extension keeps Patriot's security measures in place and demonstrates that there is a growing recognition that these crucial provisions must be preserved."
The Obama administration supported the revisions to the law as approved by the committee.
The three sections of the Patriot act that would stay in force:
_Authorize court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones.
_Allow court-approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations.
_Permit surveillance against a so-called "lone wolf," a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
The Judiciary Committee bill would have restricted FBI information demands known as national security letters, and made it easier to challenge gag orders imposed on Americans whose records are seized with these letters.
Library records would have received extra protections. Congress would have closely scrutinized FBI use of the Patriot Act to prevent abuses. Dissemination of surveillance results would have been restricted, and after a time, unneeded records would have been destroyed.
The House Judiciary Committee's bill would have restricted use of National Security letters even further, and eliminated the authority to spy on a "lone wolf" suspect. The Justice Department has said the "lone wolf" authority has never been used, but sought to retain it.
Republicans have been steadily pounding the Obama administration over the closing of the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as the possibility of holding civilian trials for detainees in the United States. They have also criticized federal agents for informing a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, of his right to remain silent after 50 minutes of questioning for allegedly trying to ignite explosives on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas.
If Democrats had allowed the Senate to have a full debate on the Judiciary Committee restrictions, they would have exposed themselves to Republican arguments that Democrats were hurting law enforcement.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic retreat didn't please the party's liberal allies, but they recognized the political realities.
"The American Library Association understands why the Democratic leadership has to go with a clean reauthorization, but that doesn't take away the disappointment we have," said Lynne Bradley, the group's chief lobbyist.
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