WASHINGTON – As the clock runs on Congress' short-term extension of the Patriot Act, President Bush met with federal prosecutors Tuesday and contended that the domestic anti-terror law is vital to keeping Americans safe.
Many key provisions of the law were to expire Dec. 31. Amid a debate over whether the act sufficiently protects civil liberties, most Senate Democrats and a few Republicans united against legislation that would have renewed several provisions permanently while extending others for four years.
In a move the White House adamantly opposed but later accepted, Congress approved a one-month extension of the law in its current form to allow the debate to continue. The new measure expires Feb. 3.
Bush, his voice rising in apparent irritation, said lawmakers must act on a permanent renewal of the law that expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers. Noting the Patriot Act was overwhelmingly approved not long after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he said political considerations now were getting in the way.
"When it came time to renew the act, for partisan reasons, in my mind, people have not stepped up and have agreed that it's still necessary to protect the country," said the president, sitting at a table in the Roosevelt Room with federal officials and 19 district attorneys from around the country.
"The enemy has not gone away. They're still there. And I expect Congress to understand that we're still at war, and they got to give us the tools necessary to win this war," he said.
Later, outside the West Wing, district attorneys cited several cases in which the Patriot Act had played a crucial role, from staging an undercover sting on California weapons dealers attempting to sell Stinger missiles to securing convictions of major terrorist financiers in New York.
"We use it each and every day to protect our country against terrorists and criminals," said Ken Wainstein, district attorney for the District of Columbia.
"We believe this provides adequate safeguards in every respect," said Mary Beth Buchanan, the district attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Bush should spend more time negotiating about the Patriot Act with Democrats and others on Capitol Hill and less on "staged meetings with hand-picked participants" at the White House.
"Contrary to the president's misleading comments, nobody wants to see the Patriot Act expire," Feingold said. "We want commonsense changes to the act that would give the government the power to combat terrorism while protecting the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens."
The White House event drew 19 of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys. They were contacted by officials at the Justice Department to attend, Wainstein said.
Among the provisions the renewal would make permanent are those that allow roving wiretaps so that investigators can listen in on any telephone and tap any computer they think a terrorist might use.