T he sadly misnamed Patriot Act, which grants federal law enforcement a laundry list of powers it had sought throughout the 1990s, but which Republicans in Congress opposed until 9/11, is in its final stages of reauthorization.
A conference committee between the House and Senate is expected to begin meeting this week or next, to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions.
The Senate version is modestly less objectionable than the House version, and it should be the basis for compromise.
The Patriot Act, remember, was rushed into being within 45 days of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It consisted of a law enforcement wish list of intrusive, new federal powers that the Clinton administration had sought without success, plus a few new wrinkles.
It was being rewritten even as the votes were taken and it is safe to say that no legislator read it in its entirety before voting on it.
The one concession congressional leaders gave to legislators who worried about this rush to empowerment was to have certain provisions of the law scheduled to “sunset” in four years unless they were reauthorized, that is, at the end of this year.
However, the Bush administration wanted the entire act made permanent, and most Republicans went along.
Both the House and Senate versions make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions scheduled to sunset. Two provisions — Section 215, which authorizes snooping through library and business records, and Section 206, which authorizes “national security letters” that allow seizure of records without judicial approval in intelligence investigations, have new sunset dates. The House version wants to reconsider them after 10 years, while the Senate version wants to extend them for “only” four years.
The Senate version also places some modest restrictions on the use of “sneak and peek” warrants.
It is unfortunate that short sunset periods for all 16 provisions were not retained. Knowing that provisions are scheduled to be reconsidered in a relatively short period is a powerful incentive for federal agents not to abuse these new powers.
Neither version of the Patriot Act reauthorization is what we would prefer, but the Senate version is a slightly better basis for compromise.