November 17, 2005

Congress Nears Deal to Renew Antiterror Law

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 - Congressional negotiators neared a final agreement Wednesday night on legislation that will extend and keep largely intact the sweeping antiterrorism powers granted to the federal government after the Sept. 11 attacks under the law known as the USA Patriot Act.

After months of vitriolic debate, the tentative agreement represents a significant and somewhat surprising victory for the Bush administration in maintaining the government's expanded powers to investigate, monitor and track terror suspects.

Negotiators met into the night Wednesday, with last-minute wrangling over several narrow points, and were expected to reach a final agreement by Thursday. Once negotiators sign the deal, it will require the final approval of the full House and Senate, which is likely to come this week.

But civil rights advocates and Democrats were already in full attack mode late Wednesday, calling the expected deal an "unacceptable" retreat from promised restrictions on the government's sweeping antiterrorism powers.

The agreement ensures the extension of all 16 provisions of the law that were set to expire in six weeks. Fourteen will be extended permanently, and the remaining two - dealing with the government's demands for business and library records and its use of roving wiretaps - will be extended for seven years.

The agreement also includes a seven-year extension of a separate provision on investigating "lone wolf" terrorists.

That represents a compromise between the versions of the bill passed earlier this year by the House and the Senate. The House had voted to extend the provisions by 10 years, but the Senate moved to extend the powers by four years.

The deal reached by negotiators does include some new restrictions on the government's powers, including greater public reporting and oversight of how often the government is demanding records and using various investigative tools.

Critics at the American Civil Liberties Union and elsewhere called the changes "window dressing" and said that the legislation left out what they considered more meaningful reform in preventing civil rights abuses in terror investigations.

"This is a bad bill," Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. "These are cosmetic changes that do little to change the Patriot Act from the way it was passed four years ago."

The antiterrorism law has become a lightning rod, and the debate over its future - including dozens of hearings and votes by nearly 400 communities urging further restrictions - amounted to a national referendum on the balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

Negotiators were still working late Wednesday to allay the concerns of some lawmakers over provisions related to sentencing in terrorism cases and other matters. Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, canceled a news conference that had been scheduled for Wednesday evening, leading to some speculation that the agreement might be in jeopardy. But negotiators said they were confident about working out last-minute wrinkles.

The Senate version of the bill, favored by many House members and by a coalition of civil rights advocates and conservative libertarians, appeared to have gained momentum in recent weeks as negotiations intensified on how to merge the two bills. It generally contained greater restrictions on the government's power than the House bill - requiring, for instance, a higher standard of proof in demanding records.

But the tide appeared to swing in recent days, and Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee, beat back efforts to place further restrictions in some counterterrorism areas, negotiators said.

The Bush administration has made renewal of the antiterrorism law a priority. Administration officials said Wednesday that while they were still waiting to review the final agreement of more than 200 pages, they were pleased that it appeared to retain virtually all of the government's current powers.

One controversial Republican proposal, which would have expanded the F.B.I.'s ability to demand records through administrative subpoenas, was left out of the agreement. Mr. Sensenbrenner also agreed to delete several death-penalty measures that were in the House version of the bill, including one that would have allowed prosecutors a second chance at imposing the death penalty in the event of a deadlocked jury.

Despite such concessions, civil rights advocates said the agreement did little to allay their concerns about potential abuses of power.

Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who has been a leading voice on civil rights matters, called the expected deal "a huge step back for civil liberties."

And Lisa Graves, a senior counsel with the A.C.L.U., said the agreement "does not address the fundamental flaws" in the original act approved weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. Ms. Graves said Congress was "poised to repeat the same mistakes it made in 2001" in rushing to approve a complex bill that few members had the time to read through.

One area of concern to some members of Congress was the F.B.I.'s growing use of what are called national security letters to demand records in terror investigations without a warrant. The letters have proven a favorite tool, with tens of thousands issued since the 2001 attacks.

The tentative agreement reached by Congressional negotiators clarifies that anyone receiving such a secret letter is allowed to consult with a lawyer, and it requires the Justice Department to disclose publicly the number of times it uses such powers. It also requires the Justice Department inspector general to audit the Federal Bureau of Investigation's use of the records demands.