President Bush has taken to the road to rally support for
the controversial Patriot Act.
"It's set to expire next year," Bush told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., on Tuesday. "I'm starting a campaign to make it clear to members of Congress it shouldn't expire. It shouldn't expire, for the security of our country."
Though Bush made similar comments in January as part of his State of the Union speech, his efforts this week mark an escalation in the political wrangling over how to balance security and privacy while fending off terrorist threats. Unless Congress votes to renew the law, large portions of the Patriot Act--including ones dealing with Internet surveillance and search warrants for electronic evidence--will expire Dec. 31, 2005.
On Monday, Bush made similar remarks in Hershey, Pa. "Before September the 11th, law enforcement could more easily obtain business and financial records of white-collar criminals than of suspected terrorists."
Bush's exhortation will play out over the next 20 months against recent but growing sentiment in Congress that the Patriot Act handed too much power to federal police. At least six bills in Congress, which go by names like Security and Freedom Ensured Act (Safe) and Protecting the Rights of Individuals Act, seek to repeal portions of the Patriot Act.
The proposed Safe Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, appears to worry the Bush administration the most. It has 18 co-sponsors totaling nearly one-fifth of the Senate and would slap limits on current police practices relating to surveillance and search warrants.
Many portions of the Safe Act affect the ability of federal police to conduct Internet surveillance against not only terrorists but also suspected perpetrators of a broad range of drug-related, computer-hacking and white-collar crimes. The Safe Act would amend current law to require, for instance, that orders for electronic surveillance specify either the identity or location of the suspect and that the person be there at the time--a departure from current practice.
One section of the Patriot Act that is scheduled to expire permits police to conduct Internet surveillance with only the permission of a network operator, and no warrant. A second section permits police to share the contents of wiretaps or Internet surveillance with the CIA, the National Security Agency and other security agencies. Another section makes it easier for prosecutors to seek search warrants for electronic evidence. A fourth, Section 215, became well known after some librarians alerted visitors that it permits the FBI to learn what books a patron has read and what Web sites a patron visited--and prohibits the librarian from disclosing the bureau's request for information.
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 309 to 118 for legislation that would essentially block part of the Patriot Act that permitted police to seek a court order that would let them surreptitiously enter a home or business. The Senate has not voted on that measure.