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Why is Patriot Act under fire if homegrown terror threat is rising?

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On Thursday, National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that failure to renew the provisions could stymie important intelligence-gathering operations both domestically and abroad.

"It is virtually impossible to rank, in terms of long-term importance, the numerous potential threats to US national security," Mr. Clapper said. "The United States no longer faces – as in the Cold War – one dominant threat. Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats, and the actors behind them, that constitute our biggest challenge."

At issue in the Patriot Act renewal are three key law enforcement provisions. They include allowing the FBI to continue to apply "roving wiretaps" to listen in on terror suspects; letting authorities use any "tangible items," including library records, to spy on suspected terrorists; and the "lone wolf" provision that allows the FBI to spy on suspects in the US who have no known connections to terror groups.

From its inception, the Patriot Act has drawn criticism for its its potential effect on civil liberties and privacy rights. Civil liberty advocates say the law provides the government too much power to spy on Americans without their knowledge, infringing particularly on the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The vote against the extensions surprised the new GOP leadership Tuesday night, especially since extensions in the past have been basically pro forma. Twenty-six Republicans, many of them with tea party affiliations, voted against the law. They joined 122 Democrats who voted against it, many of whom had voted previously to extend the Patriot Act.

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