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Gonzales urges speedy vote on Patriot Act

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Republicans step up campaign calling for four-year renewal of the controversial law.

WASHINGTON--Senate Republicans and the Bush administration took the offensive Tuesday against critics of the Patriot Act, saying on the eve of an expected vote that Congress must renew the law for four years.

In a last-minute pitch before the vote, which could happen in the House of Representatives as early as Wednesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales warned against any delays. "We have been talking about the Patriot Act for months and months," Gonzalez said. "I think the time to act is now."

Sixteen portions of the massive law, including ones relating to electronic and Internet surveillance, expire on Dec. 31. The majority will stay in effect unless repealed.

Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the bill's chief sponsor, and Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, joined Gonzales at the press conference on Capitol Hill. "It's a good law, and it ought to be passed this week and signed by the president promptly," said Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

A flurry of opposition in the Senate, led by Democrats and a few Republicans, has imperiled the so-called "conference report" (click here for PDF) that would extend the Patriot Act by four years while increasing the number of reports that would be sent to Congress on how it is being used.

That hastily assembled coalition is calling for more-substantial reforms. If those can't be finalized by the end of the year, the dissenting senators said Monday, a three-month renewal would be acceptable as an alternative.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who was alone in voting against the original Patriot Act in 2001, has threatened to employ a filibuster. "We are prepared to use whatever means we are allowed to use under the Senate rules to try to prevent this conference report from becoming law," Feingold said on the Senate floor Monday, according to a copy of his remarks posted on his Web site.

In a parallel bid to assuage concerns over the reach of the conference report, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, made available a 7-page letter (click here for PDF) saying that civil libertarians "can, and should, embrace" the conference report.

The conference report also includes arguably unrelated rules about trafficking in narcotics, photographing bridges and tunnels, and smuggling goods into the United States. Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who chairs the House International Relations Committee, said some of those provisions aim to address the "rapidly growing threat" posed by "the link between terrorist funding and the trafficking of illicit narcotics."

Also on Tuesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center released a series of documents that show FBI agents had expressed "frustration" with the internal Justice Department oversight process for conducting surreptitious monitoring under Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act.

Sec. 215, one of the sections that's due to expire Dec. 31, expanded how police could use the powerful Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain documents--including medical, student and library records--from businesses.

The documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request suggest that the FBI had decided to "bypass" the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review when pursing Sec. 215 surveillance. Electronic Privacy Information Center Director Marc Rotenberg said Congress should not renew the law until the FBI complies with the remainder of the FOIA request.

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