The House followed the Senate on Thursday in approving a four-year extension of the government’s Patriot Act powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists, casting the votes with hours to go before the measures were set to expire.
Following the 72-23 Senate vote, the House voted 250-153 to quickly approve the legislation for President Obama’s signature to beat a midnight deadline when three terror-fighting tools would expire. The action comes a month after intelligence and military forces hunted down Usama bin Laden.
“Failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement. “As long as Congress approves the extension, the president will direct the use of the autopen to sign it.”
The measure extends the legal life of roving wiretaps, court-ordered searches of business records and surveillance of non-American “lone wolf” suspects without confirmed ties to terrorist groups.
With Obama now in Europe, officials were still working out the logistics of signing the bill before surveillance operations were seriously disrupted. A short-term expiration would not interrupt ongoing operations but would bar the government from seeking warrants for new investigations.
The roving wiretaps and access to business records are small parts of the USA Patriot Act that was enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. But 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 act.
Earlier, the Senate struggled to find a way to stage a final vote in the face of continued resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Paul argued that in the rush to meet the terrorist threat in 2001 Congress enacted a Patriot Act that tramples on individual liberties. He had some backing from liberal Democrats and civil liberties groups who have long contended the Patriot Act gives the government authority to spy on innocent citizens.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the provision on collecting business records can expose law-abiding citizens to government scrutiny. “If we cannot limit investigations to terrorism or other nefarious activities, where do they end?” he asked.
“The Patriot Act has been used improperly again and again by law enforcement to invade Americans’ privacy and violate their constitutional rights,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office.
But intelligence officials have denied improper use of surveillance tools, and this week both FBI Director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent letters to congressional leaders warning of serious national security consequences if the provisions were allowed to lapse.
The Obama administration says that without the three authorities the FBI might not be able to obtain information on terrorist plotting inside the U.S. and that a terrorist who communicates using different cell phones and email accounts could escape timely surveillance.