WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 9, 2011 — Though greatly outnumbered, 122 House Democrats yesterday managed to defeat a temporary extension of the USA Patriot Act.
The three California Democrats who led the fight against the extension said they were ecstatic over the vote. Representatives May K. Love, Knott Warr and Noah Gunns held a victory party at the oldest bar in the District of Columbia, Old Ebbitt Grill, established in 1856. They were joined by President Barack Obama, who had said he was "not opposed" to the extension nor to its defeat.
"The Patriot Act was terrible," Warr said. "Who cares if it prevented another terrorist act. It terrorizes suspected terrorists by helping anti-terrorists terrorize civilians. This vote is terrific."
Three key provisions of the act were at the heart of the issue and will now expire in December. One provision allows federal investigators to get a court order to tap all the phone calls of a suspected terrorist, not just the calls made on a single line. The second provision allows surveillance of suspects who were planning a terroristic act on their own rather than as part of an identified group. The third provision allows federal investigators to get search warrants that permit them to seize tangible evidence such as phone bills and library records.
"The Patriot Act made things too easy for federal investigators," Gunns said. "They should have to get a court order every time a terrorist buys a new mobile phone. Terrorists should have the same rights as drug dealers, who can switch cell phones every couple of days to keep their conversations private."
Love said she was particularly happy to see the end of the so-called "lone wolf" provision.
"The war on terror is supposed to be against terrorist groups, such as the Taliban," she said, "not about some guy who is planning to blow up a building on his own. We already have police to track guys like Timothy McVeigh."
Warr said he is relieved that anti-terrorism investigators soon will be unable to seize library records and phone bills.
"The Patriot Act could have been used to find out which books innocent citizens are reading," he said. "How would you like it if your neighborhood terrorism expert found out you had checked out Sarah Palin's book?"
Sybil Wrights, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Patriot Act made a shambles of the civil rights of foreigners in America.
"The right of privacy is far more important than preventing terrorism," she said. "As a country, we could stand the loss of a few thousand lives in a terrorism attack, but America will cease to be a free country if we allow investigators to snoop."
Her comment was reminiscent of Obama's reported comment that America "could absorb a terrorist attack," even one as serious as a 9/11, which he said made America stronger.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the act Tuesday "one of the worst laws ... ever passed."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said he was opposed to the extension and doesn't want a permanent extension, either. He said taking away tools of the intelligence community provides "the certainty it needs to protect national security."
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