n July 29, the Senate voted to reauthorize the 16 expiring provisions of the sweeping antiterrorism bill passed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Without congressional action, these provisions of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of the year.
The Senate substituted the text of its bill (S. 1389) into the House version of the measure (H.R. 3199). This sets up a possibly contentious conference committee to reconcile the two versions, since the Senate version would impose more curbs on the law than the bill passed by the House on July 21.
Like the House version, the Senate bill would make 14 of the expiring provisions permanent. The bill extends two others for just four years, unlike the House bill, which provided for 10-year extensions.
The provisions to be made permanent include one that allows law enforcement authorities to use wiretaps and other surveillance measures to investigate suspected acts of terrorism. Also made permanent would be provisions that allow law enforcement and intelligence officers to share information in matters of national security; provisions that extend the time duration of wiretaps and search warrants from 90 to 120 days; and provisions that make it easier for authorities to issue pen-register and trap-and-trace orders, which can be used to track telephone calls and Internet communications.
The first of the sections with a four-year sunset authorizes roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects. This allows authorities to tap any telephone, cell phone, or Internet connection that government agents believe a surveillance target may be using.
The second provision would allow federal law enforcement to seek a court order for "any tangible thing," such as business, library, or medical records, that are deemed related to a terrorism investigation.
The administration has argued that all 16 provisions should be permanently extended, calling the sunsets "unnecessary and detrimental."
The bill approved by the Senate goes much further than the House bill in modifying the Patriot Act. It would require greater oversight of the Department of Justice and would place new restrictions on secret searches and surveillance.
For example, it would allow people to challenge warrants approved by a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and would require that subjects of secret searches be notified within seven days unless the extension is approved by a judge.
The bill also changes the business records provision to require law enforcement agents to show "reasonable grounds to believe" that the records sought are related to a terrorism investigation. It would also require the FBI director or deputy director to approve any attempt to obtain library, bookseller, medical, or gun sales records.
It would also extend until 2009 a provision in the 2004 intelligence overhaul law that allows law enforcement to seek warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court against so-called lone wolf terrorists who are not connected to a foreign power. The House bill would permanently reauthorize this authority.
A conference committee will be formed when Congress returns from its August recess.
Senate Approves Firearms Immunity Bill
On July 29, the Senate approved a bill (S. 397) that would block various types of civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers. The bill would shield manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of guns or ammunition from liability for harm suffered due to misuse of the weapons.
It would prohibit civil liability actions from being brought in any state or federal court, and all pending legal action against gun makers would be dismissed.
The bill would allow lawsuits against people who sell guns or ammunition with the knowledge that they will be used to commit a violent crime or be used in drug trafficking. It also would not protect anyone who knowingly violated state or federal laws regarding the sale or marketing of firearms. It also would exempt cases in which proper use resulted in physical injury, death, or property damage because of a defect in the firearm.
A similar bill was passed last year in the House but defeated in the Senate after the bill was amended to include a reauthorization of the assault weapons ban and greater background checks at gun shows.
To avoid a repeat of last year's debate, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) severely limited the amendments that Democrats could offer. Only one was approved. Offered by Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), it would require child safety devices to be sold with all handguns. Violations could result in suspension of a dealer's license and a $2,500 fine.
The other Democratic amendments were all defeated. One, offered by Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), would have blocked the sale of so-called cop-killer bullets that can pierce body armor. Instead, the Senate approved an amendment that would require a study to determine whether a uniform standard for the testing of projectiles against body armor is feasible and increase the penalties for violent or drug trafficking crimes in which the perpetrator uses or possesses body armor.
Also defeated were amendments that would have preserved the right of police officers or minors injured by firearms to sue for damages, and one that would have allowed suits to be brought by individuals but not by municipalities.
Blocked by Frist was an amendment that would have placed .50-caliber military sniper rifles in the same category as machine guns. This would have added registration requirements and stiffer penalties for violations.
Also blocked was a proposed amendment that would have prohibited the sale of firearms to people on the terrorist watch list. The Justice Department argued that denying such sales would hurt investigations by alerting the buyer that he or she is on the watch list.
Opponents of the bill worried that it would block administrative proceedings that could lead to the revocation of a gun dealer's federal firearms licenses, making it harder for federal officials to act against shady gun dealers. ■