Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Extension Of Expiring Provisions Of The USA PATRIOT Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider S. 193, the Leahy-authored USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 on Thursday, Feb. 17.  The Senate will vote tonight on a three-month extension of provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that are set to expire on February 28.

In less than two weeks, the current short-term extension of three authorities authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act will expire.  I thank the two leaders for working to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to consider the expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, and to do so in a way that ensures that these authorities do not lapse while the Republican majority in the House and new Senators consider these measures. 

The bill I introduced on January 26, and that the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider this week, is based on the bill the Judiciary Committee considered and passed with a bipartisan majority last Congress.  It includes additional adjustments made at Senator Kyl’s suggestion after the Committee reported the bill in 2009.  I will urge the Judiciary Committee to report that legislation again, and I will urge the Senate to consider and pass the improvements to the USA PATRIOT Act that we have proposed, during this short, additional three-month extension.  

The original USA PATRIOT Act included important sunsets that were supported by both Republicans and Democrats.  I believe that the sunsets suggested by Dick Armey back in 2001 have been a good thing.  I have tried to conduct aggressive oversight of USA PATRIOT Act surveillance authorities since the bill was originally enacted in 2001.  The sunsets have been helpful in that process. Accordingly, I do not support permanent extension of these surveillance authorities.

Nor do I support undercutting important oversight and government accountability with respect to these intelligence gathering tools. Instead, I support strengthening oversight while providing the intelligence community the certainty it needs to protect national security.   The bill I hope we will consider before May 27 would give the intelligence community the certainty it needs by extending these expiring authorities while also strengthening congressional and judicial oversight.  This legislation is the result of bipartisan negotiations two years ago.  It had the strong support of the administration. 

The House bill we are amending was not the product of bipartisan agreement, or even an open debate in the House.  It would extend the PATRIOT Act without improvement for the rest of the year. That is too little for too long.  I do not begrudge our friends in the House time to do their work, and for the new Republican majority to seek additional time to consider the expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act.  But it should not take a year to pass improvements to these provisions.  Importantly, we should not extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security.

With the three-month extension that the leaders have proposed, we will be able to consider the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 and improve authorities that are otherwise set to expire.  Our bill can promote transparency and expand privacy and civil liberties safeguards in the law. It will increase judicial oversight of government surveillance powers that capture information on Americans.  I hope that ours is a package of reforms that all Americans can support.  A bipartisan group of Senators on the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of it in the last Congress, including Senator Kyl and Senator Cornyn. Subsequent negotiations produced a package that was endorsed by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence.

When Congress did not act on that negotiated package of reforms, but instead passed an extension of the expiring authorities until February 28, 2011, I took steps to see that key portions of the package were implemented administratively by the Department of Justice.

It is my hope that during this short extension Congress will pass the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 to codify the steps forward that the Attorney General has taken to implement parts of our legislative proposal administratively. We can ensure that the progress in accountability and transparency that we achieved last year is not lost simply because it was never written into the statute.

In addition, we will have the opportunity to enact the parts of the bill that the Attorney General did not or could not adopt because they require a change in the statute. Chief among these is adding a new sunset on National Security Letters. Second is repealing the presumption in favor of the Government that a judge must honor when he or she reviews an application for a section 215 order for business records. The Government does not need this presumption. In fact, the Attorney General endorsed the repeal of the presumption when he expressed his support for the bill in the prior Congress.

We can preserve the authorities that give law enforcement the tools it needs to protect national security. And we can ensure that inspectors general, Congress, and the public maintain vigilant oversight of the Government, making sure these authorities are used properly and within constitutional bounds.

I urge all Senators to support the Senate amendment to H.R. 514 and then to support the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011.

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