Congress' grudging approval Thursday of a 90-day extension of three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act is a welcome reminder that legislation passed in haste in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should be revised or eliminated as needed to properly balance the nation's long-standing commitment to civil liberties with its need for security. Hearings in coming weeks should allow a thorough airing of the laws in question - and should convince legislators that revision is long overdue.
The House affirmed the extension of the three provisions on a 279-143 vote. The Senate approved the measure on Tuesday. The legislation now goes to President Barack Obama's desk. He's expected to sign the bill before its provisions expire at the end of this month.
One of the laws in question currently allows roving wiretaps to monitor multiple communication devices. Another permits government agents to petition a special federal court for secret access to "any tangible thing," ranging from business papers to books checked out of a library, that could be tied to a terrorist threat. The third gives the FBI court-approved rights for secret surveillance of non-American "lone wolf" terrorist suspects. All, as written, are overly broad, and should be amended. If they are not, Americans' right to privacy remains at risk.
Remediation should not be difficult.
Agencies seeking permission for roving wiretaps should be compelled to tell the court who is targeted. The information need not be made public, but the requirement to name names should limit or eliminate the chance that wiretaps would be used in an indiscriminate manner.
Currently, the Patriot Act permits the use of National Security Letters, a document that allows the FBI to search anyone's personal records without a warrant and without informing the individual that such a search is being made. Congress should either eliminate that provision of the law or establish strict limitations on the use of letters.
The "lone wolf" provision, according to authorities, has never been used. It should be allowed to expire at the end of the current 90-day extension.
There is legitimate concern in Congress about the three provisions of the law. The worries cross party and ideological lines. Among those voting against the extension in the Senate, for example, were Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont and Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky who, for better or worse, has become one the most prominent voices in the tea party movement. Unlikely as they are to be on the same side of any issue, Sanders and Paul were united in this instance by their common fear that the provisions as they now read give the government almost free rein to spy on people. That worry is well-founded.
There is, of course, a need to provide security for the United States. The government should have the ability to protect Americans from attack. That said, federal authorities should be bound by laws that insist that they do so in a manner consistent with the preservation of the rights and liberties that have defined the United States for more than two centuries.