WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Wednesday to extend for a year key provisions of the nation's counterterrorism surveillance law that are scheduled to expire at the end of the month. In agreeing to pass the bill, Senate Democrats retreated from adding new privacy protections to the USA Patriot Act.
The Senate approved the bill on a voice vote with no debate. It now goes to the House.
Three important sections of the Patriot Act are to expire at the end of this month.
One authorizes court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones. A second allows court-approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations. A third permits surveillance against a so-called lone wolf, a non-U.S. citizen suspected of engaging in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
Supporters say extending the law enables authorities to keep important tools in the fight against terrorism. It would also give Democrats some cover from Republican criticism that the Obama administration is soft on terrorism. Republicans have criticized the administration for trying terrorist suspects in civilians courts, rather than military ones, and for trying to close the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Some Democrats, however, had to forfeit new privacy protections they had sought for the law.
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. Library records would have received extra protections. Congress would have closely scrutinized FBI use of the law to prevent abuses. Dissemination of surveillance results would have been restricted and after a time, unneeded records would have been destroyed.
"I would have preferred to add oversight and judicial review improvements to any extension of expiring provisions in the USA Patriot Act," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But I understand some Republican senators objected."
Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.