US President Barack Obama has signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act from Paris, extending post-September 11 powers allowing the government to secretly search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of alleged terrorists or their supporters.
Hours after the US Senate and House of Representatives passed the law, through votes taken in rapid succession, and just minutes before the law was to expire at midnight in Washington DC, Obama sent in a digital signature, finalising the renewal on Thursday.
During congressional debates, legislators rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties would not be abused.
While the government’s actual use of the Patriot Act largely remains secret, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are unhappy with the extension.
Before Thursday’s Senate vote, Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said, “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
“Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” added Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, also on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Following the 250-153 evening vote in the house, the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities headed for the president’s signature with only hours to go before they were set to expire.
Congress bumped up against the deadline mainly because of the stubborn resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul, who saw the act’s terrorist-hunting powers as an abuse of privacy rights.
Paul held up the final vote for several days while he demanded a chance to change the bill to diminish the government’s ability to monitor individual actions. The bill passed the Senate 72-23.
The measure adds four years to the legal life of roving wiretaps, which are authorised for a person rather than a communications line or device; of court-ordered searches of business records; and of surveillance of non-American “lone wolf” suspects without confirmed ties to terrorist groups. It also allows the government to keep track of local library records.
The roving wiretaps and access to business records are small parts of the USA Patriot Act enacted after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Unlike most of the act, which is permanent law, those provisions must be periodically renewed because of concerns that they could be used to violate privacy rights. The same applies to the “lone wolf” provision, which was part of a 2004 intelligence law.
FBI raids activists’ homes
Since the act was signed into law during the Bush presidency, activist groups around the country have accused the government of taking advantage of the law to stifle non-violent political organisations.
During congressional debates this month, Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, underlined her opposition to the Patriot Act with the example of FBI raids and grand jury subpoenas against 23 Palestine and Colombia solidarity activists’ homes in late 2010.
The raids, legalised through the Patriot Act, were based on alleged material support for terrorism, apparently following claims that the activists were funding the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), both designated terrorist organisations by the US.
According to statements by two activists whose homes had been raided, submitted to Congress by Lee, allegations of supporting terrorists were bogus, and served as an excuse to invade privacy and stifle political opposition.
“We watched as the bedrooms of our two sons were each searched for an hour by three agents wearing blue latex gloves. The agents read one son’s poetry; they sorted through the other son’s t-shirt collection,” said the statement.
Last week, another early morning FBI and SWAT raid targeted the home of a Los Angeles activist, Carlos Montes, who woke to the sound of a battering ram breaking down his front door.
That raid, also approved under Patriot Act exception, alleged that Montes was supporting officially designated terrorist organisations, a claim the long-time activist rebukes.
While those activists, supported by Lee as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups, argue that the Patriot Act allows for inappropriate abuse of invasive powers, the law’s supporters have been able to strengthen their position in past weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“The invaluable terror-fighting tools under the Patriot Act have kept us safe for nearly a decade, and Americans today should be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will continue,” said senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.