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Patriot Act debate will resume in fall

The House and the Senate have voted to make large portions of the Patriot Act permanent. But key details are still up for negotiation.

The Patriot Act has been gradually transformed from a temporary antiterrorism measure to a permanent one.

Now that both the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved different versions of legislation to renew the controversial law, pressure is mounting for politicians to agree on a single bill that can be sent to President Bush without delay.

Those negotiations will resume in earnest when Congress returns after Labor Day from its August recess--though whatever the result, nearly all sections of the law are likely to be renewed indefinitely.

When Congress hurriedly drafted the original Patriot Act in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, politicians included a so-called sunset provision that said 16 sections would expire at the end of 2005.

Now almost all of those sections are about to become permanent. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved its version of the Patriot Act late Friday--which would affix 14 of the 16 sections permanently into law--and the House took a similar step two weeks ago. (The two sections that would be extended until late 2009 deal with roving wiretaps and police access to stored business records--also known as the "library provision.")

Making those temporary sections permanent has been a top priority of the Bush administration. "The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of this year, and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act," President Bush said in a speech last month at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Va.

Though civil libertarians have criticized the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the American Civil Liberties Union did say the Senate version is more privacy-friendly than the House version because it includes more oversight of police surveillance.

It would, for instance, improve privacy protections for customers of Internet service providers, Web-based e-mail services and phone companies by permitting recipients of "national security letters" to challenge them in court. But the Bush administration has been skeptical of that additional oversight and could try to seek its removal during negotiations this autumn.