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Patriot Act defender touts 'safeguards'

Key Bush administration ally says there are plenty of safeguards in a renewal plan. Opponents aren't convinced.

The Patriot Act renewal's primary sponsor has kicked off a campaign intended to shine light on "civil liberties safeguards" he claims are contained in the latest draft.

The defense comes as Congress prepares to resume debate on a contentious "conference report." The measure has received backing from many Republicans but harsh criticism from a mostly Democratic contingent, particularly after news that President Bush had sanctioned wiretapping of American citizens without court approval.

The president and the Justice Department , but the Senate last month succeeded in initiating a filibuster that delayed a final vote on the bill until politicians work out their differences.

In a last-minute compromise before politicians left for their holiday recess, 16 provisions of the existing law----garnered a , setting an expiration date of Feb. 3.

Anticipating further discussion, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who has led the House's Patriot Act reauthorization efforts, announced last week that he would begin "highlighting many of the dozens of civil liberties protections contained in the conference report that are not contained in current law."

Every day since Thursday, Sensenbrenner has issued statements pointing to one suggested safeguard. He said he'd continue to do so until the act's expiration date.

"I'm hopeful my colleagues in the Senate will utilize the remaining time until Feb. 3 to evaluate and debate this legislation on its merits, end this shameful filibuster, and support this vital national security law," he said in a statement.

So far, the bulk of Sensenbrenner's points refer to Section 215, sometimes called the "library" provision, which governs investigators' access to business and personal records. Sensenbrenner says the disputed conference report bakes in conditions that lead to stronger civil liberties protections than those contained in current law.

One such provision, he said, would require terrorism investigators to receive "personal approval" from the FBI director, deputy director or other chief intelligence officials before applying to a court for access to such records.

Another provision would require the attorney general to create "minimization procedures" aimed at cutting back on the retention time and spread of nonpublic information obtained about U.S. persons during investigations.

That particular provision "is not contained in current law and was requested by Sen. (Patrick) Leahy," Sensenbrenner said, referring to the Vermont Democrat who has since joined several colleagues in deeming the current conference report unacceptable. Leahy's office was unable to supply immediate comment.

The changes outlined by Sensenbrenner still fall short of expectations set forth by a coalition of nine senators--five Democrats and four Republicans--who have vowed again to push for further reforms.

In a letter sent last week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican who will play a lead role in any future legislative jockeying, the nine senators wrote, "We still firmly believe that modest but critical changes can and must be made to the conference report to address the needs of law enforcement and protect the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans."

Six of those senators, including Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, already expressed their misgivings in documents issued last year and spearheaded the filibuster efforts.