The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a vote on extending contentious surveillance provisions in a national security law -- set to expire in three weeks -- so that he could unveil a bill that would make the sections permanent.
On Thursday, the panel planned to vote on the bipartisan 2011 USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act, which, through 2013, would continue to allow roving wiretaps of suspects who switch computers or phone numbers to avoid monitoring; tracking of "lone wolves" -- persons of interest with no known links to terrorist organizations; and retrieval of records and other tangible evidence from organizations with a court order. The renewal, which was introduced Jan. 26 by Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also would heighten judicial scrutiny of such actions. Some lawmakers have objected to making major changes to the legislation in a rush.
Ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, delayed the vote during the committee's meeting. "Having this debate year after year offers little certainty to agents utilizing these provisions to keep the nation safe," he said. "Short-term reauthorizations lead to operational uncertainty and compliance and reporting problems if the reauthorization occurs too close to expiration. If these provisions are necessary, we should provide more certainty rather than simply revisiting the law year after year given the indefinite threat we face from acts of terrorism, and that looks like decades ahead. We should permanently reauthorize the three expiring provisions."
Grassley said he, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Intelligence Committee Ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would introduce legislation Thursday afternoon to cement the measures.
Later in the day, Leahy said that he and Senate leadership have begun procedures to allow his legislation to go directly to the Senate floor for a full vote.
During the committee's meeting, member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also is chairman of the Intelligence panel, said she would offer a third bill to authorize a straight renewal for three years, without Leahy's reforms. Feinstein, who earlier had supported Leahy's proposal, said, "I think there is not time really to go through a major change in those." A three-year extension would allow the sections to be debated again at the same time the entire law comes up for review, she noted. Feinstein submitted letters of support for her measure from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence.
Leahy said at the meeting, "These are going to expire in a couple weeks so I would hope that all senators in both parties who have interest in that will meet with me and Sen. Grassley. None of us want to play politics on national security and we should get moving on this."