US House defeats anti-terrorism powers extension

© AFP/Getty Images/Mario Tama

AFP/Activist Post

WASHINGTON (AFP) –  The US House of Representatives rejected a nine-month extension of counter-terrorism surveillance powers at the heart of the Patriot Act adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

With the three provisions set to expire February 28, lawmakers voted 277-148 in favor of legislation to renew them until December 8, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed under House rules.

The surprise vote came amid a bitter battle over how long to extend the intrusive powers at the core of the signature legislative response to the terrorist strikes nearly 10 years ago, and with what safeguards.

The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones; track a non-US national suspected of being “lone-wolf” terrorist not tied to an extremist group; and to seize personal or business records seen as critical to an investigation.

US President Barack Obama, wading into the fray, pressed lawmakers to extend those authorities — which supporters say fill key gaps in the fight against extremists — through December 2013.

Obama “strongly supports extension of three critical authorities that our nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to protect our national security,” the White House said in a statement.

The president “would strongly prefer” the nearly three-year extension but “does not object” to the House bill, which Republican backers said would give time needed to debate a longer lifespan for the intrusive powers.

But 26 Republicans joined 122 Democrats to defeat the measure, while 210 Republicans and 67 Democrats united in favor of extending the authorities, forcing red-faced Republican leaders to consider planning another vote.

The bigger fight had been expected in the Senate, where Republicans say they want the law extended permanently and Democrats are torn between two key White House allies who favor the December 2013 timeframe but differ deeply on safeguards.

Senator Patrick Leahy
proposed to extend the
surveillance law to 2013
© AFP/File Mandel Ngan

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy favors limiting the government’s abilities to use the various powers and greater scrutiny when they do, notably to protect against abuse or needless invasions of privacy.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation with the same timetable, but without the restrictions.

The White House statement did not express a preference between the Democratic proposals, which would put the next big fight on the issue after the 2012 presidential election campaign but could anger civil liberties supporters.

“I do not support efforts to permanently extend these expiring provisions. Nor do I support undercutting important oversight and government accountability of these intelligence gathering tools,” Leahy said in a statement.

“Instead, I support strengthening oversight and providing the intelligence community the certainty it needs to protect national security,” he said.

But key Republicans have signaled they could back Feinstein’s bill, giving it solid prospects of passing.

Leahy’s restrictions are “not helpful” to authorities hunting terrorists, said the top Republican on Feinstein’s committee, Saxby Chambliss.

“There’s no difference between our bill and Feinstein’s, except that ours would be permanent,” he said. “The 2013 extension, I’d rather see it made permanent, but it’s better” than Leahy’s bill.

US Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper urged top lawmakers in a January 28 letter to extend all three powers and complained of frequent renewals.

Holder and Clapper said they welcomed congressional scrutiny but warned against “short-term extensions that increase the uncertainties borne by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies in carrying out their missions.”

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