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Senate Wants Patriot Act Extended

The GOP-controlled Senate voted Friday to make permanent most of the expiring provisions of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act.

Senators, however, set new four-year expiration dates on the most controversial provisions of the law, those allowing federal agents to use roving wiretaps and to search library and medical records.

The passage of the Senate legislation, which was by voice vote minutes before the chamber left for a month-long summer break, sets up a fall confrontation with the Republican-controlled House, which wanted 10-year expirations, or sunsets, on those two provisions.

Also Friday, a federal judge in California ruled that some provisions of the Patriot Act dealing with foreign terrorist organizations remain too vague to be understood by a person of average intelligence and are therefore unconstitutional.

The House and the Senate will try to negotiate a compromise bill to send to President Bush before December, when 16 provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire.

The roving wiretap provision allows investigators to obtain warrants to intercept a suspect's phone conversations or Internet traffic without limiting investigators to a specific phone or requiring them to identify the suspect. The records provision authorizes federal officials to obtain "tangible items" such as business, library and medical records.

"The Patriot Act is a uniquely valuable piece of legislation for this unparalleled time in American history, and its provisions will help keep us safe and defeat the hidden terrorist cells operating here in America," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said "like all compromises, it includes provisions that are not supported by everyone in this body. However, Democratic and Republican members of the Judiciary Committee came together in a spirit of cooperation and compromise to agree on this bill, and I strongly support it."

The Senate also had a competing Patriot Act reauthorization bill that had been approved by the Intelligence Committee, which would give the FBI expanded powers to subpoena records without the approval of a judge or grand jury. That bill was not approved, however, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., threatened on Friday to hold up a final House-Senate version if negotiators restore the expanded FBI subpoena powers.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the Senate bill approved Friday was "imperfect" but "a good starting point, and is vastly better than its counterpart passed by the House."

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins found that Congress failed to remedy all the problems she defined in a 2004 ruling that struck down key provisions of the act. Her decision was handed down Thursday and released Friday in Los Angeles.

"Even as amended, the statute fails to identify the prohibited conduct in a manner that persons of ordinary intelligence can reasonably understand," the ruling said.

Collins issued an injunction against enforcement of the sections she found vague but specified that her ruling applies only to the named plaintiffs and does not constitute a nationwide injunction.

"I'm pleased that the court has recognized that people have a right to support lawful, nonviolent activities of groups the secretary of state has put on a blacklist," said David Cole, the attorney and Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Humanitarian Law Project.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department was pleased that the judge ruled in favor of the government in four out of five claims.

"The judge's ruling affects only one small aspect of the Patriot Act, and it does not change the facts surrounding the act," Scolinos said. "There has not been one verified civil liberties complaint against the act since its inception, and it has successfully broken down walls between the intelligence and the law enforcement community."

The Center for Constitutional Rights had sought to clear the way for U.S. groups and individuals to assist political organizations in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

The case centered on two groups, the Liberation Tigers, which seeks a separate homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, a political organization representing the interests of the Kurds in Turkey.

Both groups have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations.

However, the plaintiffs argued that there was a desperately increased need for aid following the tsunami disaster that devastated Sri Lanka last December. Without a clear definition of what aid is permissible, they said that those who provide assistance could be subject to 15-year prison terms.

The judge's ruling addressed the prohibition on providing material support or resources, including "training," "expert advice or assistance," "personnel" and "service" to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The judge upheld the government position on a challenge to the ban on providing "personnel" to the named groups but found the other terms too vague.

"The court finds that the terms 'training,' 'expert advice or assistance' in the form of 'specialized knowledge' and 'service' are impermissibly vague under the Fifth Amendment," the judge concluded at the end of 42-page decision.

She enjoined the government from enforcing those provisions as they apply to the groups named in the lawsuit.