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Deal reached on Patriot Act

Moderate senators, White House agree on extension

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of moderate senators who have been blocking a long-term extension of the Patriot Act reached a deal with the Bush administration Thursday that would renew the 2001 anti-terrorism law.

The White House signed off on the final changes to the statute, which would put some small new civil liberties protections in the Patriot Act but left out some safeguards that critics had been advocating.

The House of Representatives, which would have to vote on the accord, appeared likely to back the compromise.

The agreement Thursday virtually ensures the Senate will pass the Patriot Act changes later this month, before provisions of the law expire March 10. The only remaining question is how many Democrats will back the measure.

On Thursday, some members of the bipartisan group, such as Sens. John Sununu, R-N.H., Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., cheered the final agreement, saying it would add important civil liberties safeguards to the law.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., called it a "vast improvement" over earlier versions of the Patriot Act, which Congress passed just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the end result is "a better Patriot Act."

But Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who had been part of the coalition fighting to narrow the Patriot Act, complained that the changes were cosmetic.

"The few minor changes that the White House agreed to do not address the major problems with the Patriot Act that a bipartisan coalition has been trying to fix for the past several years," Feingold said. "We've come too far and fought too hard to agree to a few insignificant changes."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled Democrats would not put up a big fight:

'I commend my Republican colleagues for working hard to make the Patriot Act better," Reid said. "Democrats strongly believe we must have all necessary tools to fight terrorism, but we want checks and balances to ensure that these expansive powers are not abused. The deal reached by my Republican colleagues appears to be a step in the right direction."

How and whether to renew all of the Patriot Act has been a political challenge for Democrats, some of whom worried that blocking a long-term extension of the law would make them look soft on terrorism.

Critics of the Patriot Act, including former Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the law went too far in giving law enforcement officers sweeping powers to go after suspected terrorists. Also, they said, there are not enough protections in the measure to guard against government abuse.

The bipartisan group had been working to narrow some of the government's power under the Patriot Act and write in more safeguards. In particular, they wanted to force a higher standard of proof on the government whenever it wants to obtain court orders for records from businesses. Sununu's bipartisan group wanted the government to show the records would be "relevant" to an authorized investigation to protect against terrorism; under current law, the government does not have to show a connection between the records it seeks and a suspected terrorist.

Thursday's deal includes only a modest change to that legal standard — a major blow to civil libertarians who had made that one of their top priorities in scaling back the Patriot Act. Under the compromise, the government would have to convince a judge that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the items sought are relevant to an investigation.

Sununu said he was disappointed the safeguard he advocated — showing sought records are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation — wasn't part of the final deal. But he pledged Congress would continue to watch how the government uses the power.

The accord represents earlier changes to the Patriot Act that already had been negotiated between the House and the Senate. And, it puts a new check on the government's ability to use secret "national security letters" to compel businesses and libraries to release information about their patrons.

Recipients of those letters are barred from disclosing that they have received them, but under the pact, anyone getting the letters would be able to challenge the gag order in court.

The final deal also blocks the government from using the national security letters to pry information from libraries that are offering "traditional" services, such as book lending and basic Internet access at public computer terminals. Durbin said he hoped the change would ensure the government could not use national security letters to look into library patron's Web-surfing habits at public computers.

Most of the Patriot Act is permanent, though 16 provisions of the law were originally set to expire Dec. 31, 2005.

President Bush had called on Congress to permanently renew the law, but in December, lawmakers opted only for a short-term extension after four Republicans joined most Senate Democrats in filibustering the long-term bill.

Under the final deal, 14 of the expiring provisions would be made permanent, and two others would expire in seven years.