November 17, 2005
Congress Nears Deal to Renew Antiterror Law
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 - Congressional negotiators neared a final agreement
Wednesday night on legislation that will extend and keep largely intact the
sweeping antiterrorism powers granted to the federal government after the
Sept. 11 attacks under the law known as the USA Patriot Act.
After months of vitriolic debate, the tentative agreement represents a
significant and somewhat surprising victory for the Bush administration in
maintaining the government's expanded powers to investigate, monitor and
track terror suspects.
Negotiators met into the night Wednesday, with last-minute wrangling over
several narrow points, and were expected to reach a final agreement by
Thursday. Once negotiators sign the deal, it will require the final approval
of the full House and Senate, which is likely to come this week.
But civil rights advocates and Democrats were already in full attack mode
late Wednesday, calling the expected deal an "unacceptable" retreat from
promised restrictions on the government's sweeping antiterrorism powers.
The agreement ensures the extension of all 16 provisions of the law that
were set to expire in six weeks. Fourteen will be extended permanently, and
the remaining two - dealing with the government's demands for business and
library records and its use of roving wiretaps - will be extended for seven
The agreement also includes a seven-year extension of a separate provision
on investigating "lone wolf" terrorists.
That represents a compromise between the versions of the bill passed earlier
this year by the House and the Senate. The House had voted to extend the
provisions by 10 years, but the Senate moved to extend the powers by four
The deal reached by negotiators does include some new restrictions on the
government's powers, including greater public reporting and oversight of how
often the government is demanding records and using various investigative
Critics at the American Civil Liberties Union and elsewhere called the
changes "window dressing" and said that the legislation left out what they
considered more meaningful reform in preventing civil rights abuses in
"This is a bad bill," Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who
sits on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. "These are cosmetic
changes that do little to change the Patriot Act from the way it was passed
four years ago."
The antiterrorism law has become a lightning rod, and the debate over its
future - including dozens of hearings and votes by nearly 400 communities
urging further restrictions - amounted to a national referendum on the
balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.
Negotiators were still working late Wednesday to allay the concerns of some
lawmakers over provisions related to sentencing in terrorism cases and other
matters. Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the
Judiciary Committee, canceled a news conference that had been scheduled for
Wednesday evening, leading to some speculation that the agreement might be
in jeopardy. But negotiators said they were confident about working out
The Senate version of the bill, favored by many House members and by a
coalition of civil rights advocates and conservative libertarians, appeared
to have gained momentum in recent weeks as negotiations intensified on how
to merge the two bills. It generally contained greater restrictions on the
government's power than the House bill - requiring, for instance, a higher
standard of proof in demanding records.
But the tide appeared to swing in recent days, and Representative F. James
Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Judiciary
Committee, beat back efforts to place further restrictions in some
counterterrorism areas, negotiators said.
The Bush administration has made renewal of the antiterrorism law a
priority. Administration officials said Wednesday that while they were still
waiting to review the final agreement of more than 200 pages, they were
pleased that it appeared to retain virtually all of the government's current
One controversial Republican proposal, which would have expanded the
F.B.I.'s ability to demand records through administrative subpoenas, was
left out of the agreement. Mr. Sensenbrenner also agreed to delete several
death-penalty measures that were in the House version of the bill, including
one that would have allowed prosecutors a second chance at imposing the
death penalty in the event of a deadlocked jury.
Despite such concessions, civil rights advocates said the agreement did
little to allay their concerns about potential abuses of power.
Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who has been a
leading voice on civil rights matters, called the expected deal "a huge step
back for civil liberties."
And Lisa Graves, a senior counsel with the A.C.L.U., said the agreement
"does not address the fundamental flaws" in the original act approved weeks
after the Sept. 11 attacks. Ms. Graves said Congress was "poised to repeat
the same mistakes it made in 2001" in rushing to approve a complex bill that
few members had the time to read through.
One area of concern to some members of Congress was the F.B.I.'s growing use
of what are called national security letters to demand records in terror
investigations without a warrant. The letters have proven a favorite tool,
with tens of thousands issued since the 2001 attacks.
The tentative agreement reached by Congressional negotiators clarifies that
anyone receiving such a secret letter is allowed to consult with a lawyer,
and it requires the Justice Department to disclose publicly the number of
times it uses such powers. It also requires the Justice Department inspector
general to audit the Federal Bureau of Investigation's use of the records