On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passsed an extension of the 2001 Patriot Act (HR 3199, 251-174) which gives the FBI authority to use a variety of surveillance methods, including roving wiretaps, and powers such as seeing private medical records. Sixteen provisions in the current bill will sunset on Dec. 31.
Signed into law only weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act is the product of a Congress jolted into action, any action, to respond to terrorism. Four years later, the White House has been pressing both houses of Congress to pass a Republican compromise bill. However, a bipartisan group of senators is pressing for reconsideration and has threatened a filibuster.
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In addition, an unusual coalition is also calling for a delay: Opposition groups are as varied as the American Conservative Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "Seven states and nearly 400 counties and communities have approved resolutions critical of the Patriot Act."
At issue are provisions allowing the FBI access to personal information without a warrant through the use of "National Security Letters" and the act's broad definition of terrorism, which could include traditional acts of civil disobedience.
"The fact that Congress wasn't aware that the FBI has used some 30,000 national-security letters over the past few years is an indication that not enough oversight has been done," says Tim Lynch, director of the CATO Institute's project on criminal justice. "The money-laundering sections of the Patriot Act require scores of businesses to track the transactions of their customers and report to the government. It's an aspect of the Patriot Act that doesn't get much attention, but it should. This has huge implications for people's privacy."
Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) are leading Senate opposition. Feingold cast the lone dissenting vote against the original bill in 2001. Feingold called the House bill "a major disappointment." It takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster; there have been no rumors of Republicans invoking the "nuclear option" should a filibuster occur.