Washington – Top congressional leaders agreed Thursday to a four-year extension of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, the controversial law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that governs the search for terrorists on American soil.
The deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner calls for a vote before May 27, when parts of the current act expire. The idea is to pass the extension with as little debate as possible to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government.
Support for the extension was unclear. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wanted tighter restrictions on the government's power and may seek to amend it. In the House, members of the freshman class elected on promises of making government smaller were skeptical.
"I still have some concerns, and at this point I'm leaning against (voting for) it," said one, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. The legislation would extend three expiring provisions until June 1, 2015, officials said.
The provisions at issue allow the government to use roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and across multiple carriers and get court-approved access to business records relevant to terrorist investigations. The third, a "lone wolf" provision that was part of a 2004 law, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals without having to show a connection between the target and a specific terrorist group.
From its inception, the law's increased surveillance powers have been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike as infringements on free speech rights and protections against unwarranted searches and seizures.
Some Patriot Act opponents suggest that Osama bin Laden's demise earlier this month should prompt Congress to reconsider the law, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power. But the act's supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.
"Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act," Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.