Eight years after it was passed, the USA Patriot Act remains among the most controversial pieces of counterterrorism legislation in the so-called “war on terror.” On December 31 of this year, some of its more controversial provisions will expire, forcing Congress to revisit it and decide whether to reauthorize the expiring provisions, amend them, or re-work the entire law.
The sections set to expire give the government the authority to access business records, operate roving wiretaps and conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects with no known link to foreign governments or terrorist groups. A justice Department official last week told Congress that the Obama administration supports their renewal. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote to Senator Patrick Leahy (D- Vt.) that the administration would consider stronger civil rights protections “provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important (provisions).”
But at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, it was clear that Democrats don’t uniformly support the White House on that. Some Democrats on the committee were still bitter that some Republicans back in 2001 had pushed aside a bipartisan version of the bill produced by the Judiciary Committee in favor of a version substantially revised and altered by the Rules Committee, led by then-chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.).
“Then-Chairman Dreier under Lord knows whose instructions, substituted that bill for another bill, that we at judiciary had never seen. So we come here today now to consider what we do with those parts that are expiring” and that, according to committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), created problems that the bill he’d approved would have prevented.