Authority to Spy on Americans Unclear as Patriot Act Expires

Patriot Act

Rushed into law by Congress just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001 three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act granting officials far-reaching surveillance and seizure powers in the name of national security, are due to expire this New Year's Eve.

Two differing bills passed by the House and Senate judiciary committees in recent weeks will have to be reconciled in Congress, but only when the Senate isn't backlogged by health care, Democratic aides told ABC News.

Video of controversy surrounding the Patriot Act set to expire on New Years Eve.
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"This critical legislation protects our national security, as well as our civil liberties, and the clock is ticking," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., an author of President Bush's 2001 Patriot Act and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the Bush administration.

Sensenbrenner urged the House and Senate to act quickly in reauthorizing the provisions before they expire at the end of this year.

That timing is unclear. With so few weeks left in the year and the health care debate just beginning in the Senate, it's possible that Congress will first vote for a temporary extension to prevent certain Patriot Act authorities from sunsetting, according to an aide.

With full support from the Obama administration, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill last month reauthorizing the law that has in recent years sparked much controversy over rights to privacy protected under the Constitution, with some minor tweaks.

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But House Democrats in the Judiciary Committee went much further reigning in executive authorities and raising the threshold of proof needed to legally seize Americans' personal records and conduct wiretaps on their phones. It also slapped on more restrictions, and required more government auditing, and reporting showing how the process could be modified to enhance civil liberties.

"We have the opportunity to fix the most extreme provisions of that law and provide a better balance," said Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., who introduced the House bill, which allows one provision of the Patriot Act to expire.

In renewing only two of the three sunsetting provisions, the House version has defied the White House, quietly pushing Congress to totally renew its predecessor's law.

This is not a new debate. Four years ago, then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who taught constitutional law, voted down the same provisions along with all Senate Democrats, and insisted on changes to the bill that better protected libraries, limited clandestine search warrants, roving wiretaps, and FBI gag orders.

The end product was a compromised package that Sen. Obama said was far from perfect, but that was better than what was passed by counterparts in the House, which in a role reversal voted to renew President Bush's historically intrusive surveillance policies.

"This compromise does modestly improve the Patriot Act by strengthening civil liberties protections without sacrificing the tools that law enforcement needs to keep us safe," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.

If passed again as the Obama administration has signaled it wants, the next Patriot Act reauthorization won't be until 2013.

The expiring provisions of the Patriot Act are:

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