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How the Patriot Act came in from the cold

The addition of new civil liberties protections made the Patriot Act's final lurch toward passage possible.

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It may be one of the most controversial congressional bills in years, but the USA Patriot Act is on the verge of becoming more entrenched than ever in US law.

Congress will almost certainly give final approval to a Patriot Act reauthorization next week. The move may be a political boost for the Bush administration, given that revelations about the White House and warrantless eavesdropping had made many lawmakers worried about granting US law enforcement too much power.

The addition of some new civil liberties protections made the Patriot Act's final lurch toward passage possible. To critics, these changes are but tissue-paper defenses. But the bill's defenders say its provisions are necessary - and that much of the opposition to the Patriot Act is driven, not by the bill itself, but by opposition to administration domestic-security policies.

"It's not about the Patriot Act per se. It involves larger questions of mistrust for the Justice Department and the White House," says James Andrew Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The Patriot Act, the legislative centerpiece of Bush's domestic war on terror, had been bottled up in the Senate for months. In fact, most of the bill expired Dec. 31. Two congressional extensions kept its provisions in force - though the second of these extensions was set to expire on March 10.

The opposition to reauthorization consisted of every Senate Democrat, plus five Republicans, who refused to allow a final vote until their concerns about civil liberties were met.

In the end, the White House and the Senate GOP leadership crafted a package of civil liberties additions that satisfied most Senate critics. Among the most important changes:

Recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations will have the right to challenge the requirement that they not tell anyone about the subpoena.

In addition, recipients of such subpoenas will no longer be forced to provide the FBI with the name of their lawyer.

Finally, the civil liberties package clarifies that most general-purpose libraries are not subject to demands made in so-called National Security Letters for information about suspected terrorists.

At the time of this writing, the Senate was scheduled to give final approval to the overall Patriot Act package on March 2. The House was expected to take its final vote on March 7.

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