House, Senate Judiciary chairs clash over extending online spy provisions

Senate measure offers a longer-term solution and more oversight than the rival House proposal.

House and Senate committee leaders on Wednesday backed dueling legislation to extend online surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that are set to expire at the end of February.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the bipartisan 2011 USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act, which would continue to allow roving wiretaps of suspects who change computers or phone numbers to avoid monitoring; tracking of "lone wolves" -- people of interest with no known links to terrorist groups; and retrieval of records and other tangible evidence from organizations with a court order. The proposal, which would expire in December 2013, also demands greater judicial supervision.

Last Congress, Leahy's committee approved a nearly identical bill (S.1692) backed by the Obama administration, but the full Senate instead opted to pass a straight temporary extension -- without the oversight measures -- that expires Feb. 28.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, announced on Wednesday he has thrown his support behind a bill, H.R. 67, that Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., unveiled on Jan. 5 that would extend the three expiring provisions for a shorter period of time, to 2012. It contains no additional oversight provisions.

Leahy said in a statement on Wednesday: "Earlier this month, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to extend the expiring provisions only until February 2012, an expiration date chosen deliberately to try to force a debate over national security in an election year. My bill sets a longer sunset period, which law enforcement strongly favors."

But Smith defended his approach, calling the short-term extension "a step toward the long-term reauthorization of important and necessary national security provisions. It gives Congress time for an open and meaningful debate, while ensuring that our law enforcement and intelligence communities can continue to prevent attacks and save lives."

Leahy's changes aimed at heightening oversight include language requiring the government to list the facts and circumstances that justify obtaining a court order to retrieve records. Current law states the records are presumed relevant, so long as they are associated with a foreign power, the activities of a suspected agent of a foreign power, or an individual in contact with such an agent.

In addition, the Senate proposal raises the standard for gaining permission to conduct wiretaps. Existing law mandates that the government certify the information sought is foreign intelligence data or relevant to a terrorist investigation. The new measure would demand the government provide facts that substantiate the belief that the information gleaned will likely be relevant.