Senate panel approves Patriot Act extensions

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to extend until the end of 2013 three post-Sept. 11 terror-fighting practices that have raised concerns among civil liberties groups.

At the same time, the legislation, which was approved on a 10-7, mainly party-line vote, would end in December 2013 the investigative tool known as National Security Letters that compel businesses to turn over customer records without a judge's order.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sought to answer criticisms of the provisions that would be extended — two from the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act — by including new privacy and civil liberty safeguards and increasing oversight.

He said the bill, which now goes to the full Senate, strikes a balance between protecting both national security and civil liberties.

The measure would extend through 2013 the Patriot Act authorities to use roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and to obtain court-approved access to business records considered relevant to terrorist investigations.

It likewise extends authority for secret intelligence surveillance of non-American, "lone wolf" suspects not linked to specific terrorist groups, part of a 2004 intelligence act.

Congress has had to enact several short-term extensions of the three measures because of the ongoing debate over how best to pursue suspected terrorists without violating legal and privacy rights. Last month Congress agreed to a three-month extension that will expire on May 27.

National security letters, known as NSLs, also have been targeted by civil liberties groups alleging that they have been abused by law enforcement agencies to obtain personal telephone, bank, Internet and credit records without first getting a warrant from a judge. The FBI has said it has taken steps to tighten its rules on the use of NSLs.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held a hearing on the Patriot Act, with its chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, defending the three provisions.

"Congress must set aside fiction and focus on the facts," Smith said. "The three expiring national security provisions that Congress will consider this year are both constitutional and common sense."

Senate Republicans have called for extending the three provisions permanently. The only Judiciary Committee Republican to support Leahy's bill was Rep. Mike Lee of Utah.