Senators Introduce Bill to Repeal Patriot Act Sunset Provisions

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On Friday, May 21, 10 Republican senators, led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), introduced a bill (S. 2476) that would repeal the sunset clauses of the USA Patriot Act, essentially making the entire bill -- including Section 215 -- permanent, as reported by Secrecy News. While civil liberties groups and some members of the Senate decried the bill, many believe that the senators lack the support necessary to pass the bill.

On Monday, May 24, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release voicing its strong opposition to the legislation. "Congress had the foresight to make temporary some provisions of the hastily enacted Patriot Act," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, in a statement. "It is extremely premature to make these provisions permanent when Congress has not conducted thorough oversight on how the Act has been used and what safeguards can be included to protect civil liberties." The bill lacks a companion measure in the House.

Sixteen parts of the Act sunset or expire at the end of 2005, at which point they will be subject to Congressional oversight and reauthorization. S. 2476 calls for all of the sunset provisions of the Patriot Act to be lifted.

However, the 10 senators seeking to repeal the sunset provisions may have a tough road ahead in their quest, and ACLU's Edgar went so far as to say that "if brought to a vote in the Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor, repeal of the sunset provision would be defeated by a comfortable margin."

Already, there are a number of bills in the Senate and in the House, introduced by both Republicans and Democrats, seeking to repeal controversial provisions in the Act.

In October 2003, several Republican senators, including Larry Craig (R-ID), Arlen Specter (R-PA), John Sununu (R-NH), and Mike Crapo (R-ID), along with Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), introduced the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (SAFE). The legislation (S. 1709) would amend parts of the USA Patriot Act, including Section 215, which gives law enforcement officials broad authority to obtain citizens' medical, business, bookstore and library, and even genetic records without probable cause.

The bill was endorsed by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and is the fourth bill introduced in the Senate that would restore the protections for the privacy of bookstore customers and library patrons, and the second to be introduced by a Republican. Moreover, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an FBI oversight hearing on May 20, where Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stressed he plans to have a hearing on the SAFE Act.

And former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) -- speaking before the House Judiciary Committee last week -- noted that his support for the Act was predicated on the "sunset" of a number of its provisions, Secrecy News reported. "Making those powers permanent now would take away any leverage Congress now has to secure cooperation from the Justice Department in its oversight efforts," Barr said.

In related news, plans are underway for a late June ceremony in Washington, D.C., at which representatives of ABA, the American Library Association, and PEN American Center, the sponsors of the Campaign for Reader Privacy, will present petitions calling for an amendment of Section 215 to members of Congress. Tabulation of the petitions gathered so far is still underway, and the number will be announced at the Celebration of Bookselling at this year's BookExpo America. (For more about the Campaign for Reader Privacy, click here.)