Because of their questionable impact on constitutional rights, Congress gave the 16 provisions a four-year expiration date when it hastily passed the Patriot Act in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The most hotly contested provisions expand the governments powers of search and seizure, including the authority to demand records from businesses simply by stating to a secret court that the records are related to an ongoing investigation of some kind.
Business leaders from across industry have expressed growing concern about the financial and legal burden of complying with the records seizure powers. Enterprises, whose technology departments are required to hand over vast amounts of data to the FBI under the expanded powers, are concerned about endless government fishing expeditions that are costly and could potentially cause liability problems in other jurisdictions.
When the powers neared their initial expiration date at the end of 2005, a small group of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in refusing to renew them without adding greater civil liberties safeguards. Just before the holidays, Congress passed a five-week extension ending Feb. 3.
The House, which last year passed a renewal bill without the new safeguards—reflecting the Bush administrations position—grudgingly passed another five-week extension Feb. 1. The Senate followed suit the next day.
"This extension keeps in place critical provisions that our law enforcement need to fight the war on terror," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "In recent weeks, we have seen yet another taped message from Osama bin Laden, more evidence that the threat to American citizens continues. We must stay on the offensive fighting terrorism, and the Patriot Act helps us do that. Still, these short-term extensions send the wrong message."
The small group of Senate Republicans holding out for further safeguards reflects a non-partisan demand for such protections outside Congress.
"I am pleased that, despite the presidents calls to reauthorize the Patriot Act in full during the State of the Union address, the House did not capitulate to partisan political pressure and vote in favor of the flawed House-passed conference report for the second time," said former Republican congressman Bob Barr, chairman of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, which joined the American Civil Liberties Union in fighting for greater protections. "Although it is important that Congress renew the Patriot Act, it is more important that they renew it with the inclusion of modest—but essential—privacy protections."
The civil liberties advocates are seeking legislation that requires the government to link records sought under the Patriot Act to a suspected foreign terrorist or terrorist organization.
The provisions now will expire March 10.