The House of Representatives voted Thursday, 257 to 171, to extended the USA Patriot Act, a sweeping law approved by Congress after the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. The latest incidents in London were the backdrop for passionate debate about the law:
U.S. law enforcement officials have described the Patriot Act as their most effective tool to prevent new terrorist attacks since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks that killed 3,000 people.
However, debate over making permanent 14 provisions of the law expiring at the end of 2005, and extending the life of two other provisions for 10 years, underscored ongoing disagreements between majority Republicans and opposition Democrats.
Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, recalled the law was approved by wide bipartisan majorities after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks, and rejected Democrat assertions it leaves too much room for violations of civil liberties. "Not withstanding the vague and general suspicion expressed by some of its detractors, the record shows that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Patriot Act has been abused to violate American civil liberties. None whatsoever," he said.
Democrats supported giving law enforcement tools needed to fight terrorism, but argued forcefully against key aspects involving the power authorities have to request, and justify the need for library, bookstore and other records.
Michigan Democrat John Conyers, in discussing the use of so-called national security letters authorities can use to justify seizures of records, said they allow " the FBI to obtain financial, telephone, Internet and other records relevant to any intelligence investigation, without judicial approval. Again, this is for any intelligence investigation, which means it doesn't even have to deal with terrorism or even a crime."
Republicans insisted that changes worked out before the House debate should satisfy Democrat's concerns about proper judicial review of requests for access to records and for searches.
Congresswoman Candace Miller, a Republican, says terrorist threats justify the strongest of measures. "While I care deeply about protecting the civil rights of law-abiding Americans, I do not care one iota about the civil rights of terrorists bent on destroying our way of life."
The question of allowing certain parts of the law to expire once they are no longer needed, so-called sunset provisions, sparked some of the sharpest debate.
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a strong supporter of the original Patriot Act in 2001, said he would oppose the revised law because it eliminates many of these provisions. "Any real patriot will vote against this expansion of government at the expense of the individual even when peacetime comes."
Republicans and Democrats pointed to Thursday's incidents in London as further evidence of the need for making permanent the law's provisions.
"I remain confident [of] not only the resolve of the British government, led by (Prime Minister) Tony Blair, but also the resolve of the British people to stand firm against these cowards," said Phil Gingrey, a Republican lawmaker from the southern state of Georgia.
Numerous amendments sought stronger protections regarding civil liberties and such things as electronic surveillance, Internet and e-mail records, and public library records, and sought greater accountability to courts and Congress.
Other amendments proposed to toughen penalties with regard to terrorist financing and use of sea vessels for terrorist purposes. One sought to establish narco-terrorism as a criminal offense, while another sought to require the death penalty for terrorist offenses causing death.
Legislation reauthorizing the Patriot Act is also moving toward consideration in the U.S. Senate, where similar issues are being debated. President Bush has described reauthorization of the Patriot Act as vital to the war on terrorism.