Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Bush steps up Patriot Act campaign

IHT reports:

President George W. Bush assembled a phalanx of U.S. attorneys at the White House on Tuesday to bolster his calls for Congress to renew the anti-terrorism bill known as the USA Patriot Act, intensifying a coming clash with Capitol Hill over civil liberties and national security.

Surrounded in the Roosevelt Room by 19 of the attorneys, Bush charged that Congress was holding up the law because of politics.

"When it came time to renew the act, for partisan reasons, in my mind, people have not stepped up and have agreed that it's still necessary to protect the country," Bush said. "The enemy has not gone away - they're still there. And I expect Congress to understand that we're still at war and they've got to give us the tools necessary to win this war."

The president's remarks and an appearance by the U.S. attorneys in the West Wing driveway afterward were part of a stepped-up White House campaign to make permanent the anti-terrorism bill, which expanded the government's investigative powers after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The law was originally passed with bipartisan support, but with time limits built in because many lawmakers were nervous about its broad reach; many critics have said that the legislation impinges on civil liberties. In December, with major provisions of the bill set to expire on Dec. 31, the White House aggressively pushed to make the law permanent, but Democrats and a handful of Republicans balked and extended the law for only five weeks, to Feb. 3.

The White House efforts were further complicated by a simultaneous uproar in Congress in December over revelations that Bush authorized a secret spying program to monitor international phone calls and international e-mail messages of people in the United States.

The U.S. attorneys, all Bush presidential appointees summoned to Washington by the Justice Department, echoed Bush when they appeared en masse in front of television cameras on the driveway moments after the president spoke.

Rosalynn Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the law had made it easier for the Eastern District "to choke off the supply of money to terrorists." Specifically, Mauskopf said, prosecutors had used the law, which broadened federal powers to obtain financial records, to convict the spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden, Sheik Muhammad Ali Hassan al-Mouyad, as well as Mouyad's assistant, for funneling millions of dollars to Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Administration and congressional officials said they expected a compromise on the bill between the White House and members of both parties on Capitol Hill. In mid-December, the House did pass a measure to make 14 of 16 expiring provisions in the Patriot Act permanent, but that bill got bottled up in the Senate, eventually leading Congress to enact only the five-week extension.

Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who had voted to block the permanent renewal of the Patriot Act in part because of the revelations about the spying program, said Tuesday that there was room for a deal.

"Look, this is one that should be able to be worked out, because the sides are relatively close," Schumer said.

One of the main sticking points is a provision giving the federal government the power to demand access to library records on what material people have borrowed and other information showing reading habits. The provision was challenged in a lawsuit in Connecticut by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The other main sticking point is an administrative subpoena, called a national security letter, that lets the federal government demand records without a judge's approval.