Fri, Dec 23, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Amended anti-terror legislation wins approval

TEMPORARY MEASURE President Bush settled for compromise on the time period for the Patriot Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to combat terror

AFP , WASHINGTON

US President George W. Bush was forced late Wednesday to settle for a face-saving compromise on a key counterterrorism law that fell far short of his goal to see it expended indefinitely.

The reluctant nod came from the White House after Republican and Democratic senators agreed to extend the main provisions of the USA Patriot Act for only six months.

Bush wanted no time limits attached to the measure, but had to take what his Republican allies in Congress were able to extract from an unyielding coalition of Democrats and several Republicans.

As part of the accord, which was later adopted by voice vote, opponents of the act in its current form agreed to end their filibuster -- extending a debate to prevent a vote -- and the Republican majority dropped its opposition to a temporary solution.

Enacted barely six weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the act is seen by the Bush administration as a key legal tool in the war on terror.

It gives the federal government greater search and surveillance powers by streamlining procedures and eliminating red tape.

Under its provisions, investigators can obtain warrants to intercept telephone conversations conducted by a terrorism suspect or monitor e-mail traffic from any computer.

The law also makes it possible for the government to obtain banking, medical or library records.

But mindful of concerns the act could make Americans more vulnerable to government intrusion, lawmakers had equipped 16 of its key provisions with the so-called "sunset" feature, making sure that, unless renewed, they will automatically expire at the end of this year.

Two of these provisions dealing with the government's access to library records and so-called roving wiretaps, which allow the government to monitor all the telephones a person has access to, have drawn particularly strong criticism as excessively invasive and harmful to civil liberties.

The filibuster of the act's extension was led by a bipartisan group of 52 senators that included eight Republicans. The scope of the opposition made it clear the White House and its allies would not be able to muster the 60 votes necessary in the 100-seat Senate to end the obstructionist tactic.

Meanwhile, after strenuous late-night wrangling, the US Senate approved a US$453 billion military spending bill.

But its approval late Wednesday by a 93-0 vote became possible only after senators agreed to rid the measure of a provision that would have allowed oil companies to drill in a wildlife preserve in Alaska.

The measure endured tortuous negotiations during which Democrats managed to keep a united front in opposing the drilling provision championed by Republican Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and backed by top Republicans and the White House.

The drilling language was doomed earlier in the day when Republicans fell four votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster of the measure by Democratic senators.

Two senators, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio, defected from the Republican camp and sided with Democrats on that issue.

Critics have charged that drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve would damage the pristine environment without significantly contributing to solving US energy woes.

For most lawmakers though, it was a must-pass measure primarily because it contains US$50 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2006, which started on October 1.

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