President Bush on Tuesday evening called for the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, the controversial law that has expanded Internet surveillance powers for police and partially expires next year.
Using the pageantry of his third State of the Union speech, Bush set in motion a battle over privacy and security that will continue through the presidential campaign and will likely climax before the law's Dec. 31, 2005, partial expiration date.
"Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year," Bush said. "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule. Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens--you need to renew the Patriot Act."
One section that will expire permits police to conduct warrantless Internet surveillance with the permission of a network operator. A second section permits police to share the contents of wiretaps or Internet surveillance with the Central Intelligence Agency, 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 recipient of such an order from disclosing that it exists.
Keeping those portions of the law intact will permit "federal law enforcement to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells and to seize their assets," Bush said.
Enacted a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act became a target of criticism for giving police broad powers and allegedly curbing civil liberties in the process.
Democratic presidential candidates have criticized it to varying extents, with Sen. John Kerry saying last month that he would take a hard look at the Patriot Act. "We will put an end to 'sneak and peak' searches, which permit law enforcement to conduct a secret search and seize evidence without notification," said Kerry, who acknowledged that he voted for the measure in 2001. "Agents can break into a home or business to take photos, seize property, copy computer files or load a secret keystroke detector on a computer. These searches should be limited only to the most rare circumstances."
After Bush's speech, ABC News asked Kerry whether he would keep the law intact. Kerry replied: "I think there are good parts to it and bad parts to it."
Fellow Democrat Howard Dean has taken a similarly cautious stand, saying in a letter to MoveOn.org PAC members that he would seek to repeal only "parts" of the Patriot Act and not the entire law.
Many portions of the Patriot Act have no expiration date. One part makes it much easier for police to learn the identities of a target's e-mail correspondents and Web pages visited; another permits police to learn information about an Internet subscriber, such as credit card or bank account numbers and temporarily assigned network addresses, without seeking a judge's approval first. The section that permits "sneak and peek" warrants, which authorize surreptitious searches of homes and businesses, also does not expire.