Aides: Short PATRIOT extension likely

By Chris Strohm

December 14, 2009

House and Senate Democrats have been unable to agree on changes to three key provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and a related intelligence law, meaning a short-term reauthorization of existing provisions will most likely be needed soon, according to congressional aides.

The provisions are set to expire at the end of the month. A House Democratic leadership aide said the expectation is that the provisions will be reauthorized for three months in a rider to the fiscal 2010 Defense Appropriations bill, giving lawmakers needed time to work out their differences.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., cautioned last week that the Defense Appropriations bill may be loaded with too many other pieces of legislation.

"I would think under ordinary circumstances, this would be routine to extend [the provisions] for three months, in the hope these are ordinary circumstances," he said. "But the bill is now freighted with a lot of big things -- or could be. That's my concern."

Other aides said the challenge of negotiating a final agreement on revisions to the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions is starting to remind them of the acrimonious debate of rewriting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which took more than a year.

Two bills amending the provisions have come to the forefront, one that was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in November and a measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.

Both would reauthorize the ability of the government to use roving wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspects and to obtain Section 215 court orders seeking tangible evidence for investigations, although they differ over changes to the provisions.

The bills also make several changes to current law, especially concerning the ability of the Justice Department to issue national security letters, which are demands for information without a court order.

But the House Judiciary bill would allow a provision to expire that allows the government to conduct surveillance on a "lone wolf," or someone who is not knowingly associated with terrorists. The Senate Judiciary bill reauthorizes that provision.

Dan Friedman contributed to this report.

By Chris Strohm

December 14, 2009