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Vermont's Leahy Objects to Patriot Act Compromise

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal to extend key provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Those provisions are controversial, and they were set to expire at the end of the year. Yesterday's agreement gives federal authorities a four-year extension on a number of controversial provisions, including one for roving wire taps, which allow investigators to follow terror targets from one phone to another phone.

Now we said they've reached an agreement. This is an announcement that senators have made before and House members have made before, and that last agreement fell apart. It's not clear if that'll happen again. Six senators, three Democrats and three Republicans, say they intend to oppose this compromise, and in addition, Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, did not sign the report approving the deal. And Senator Leahy is on the line with us this morning.

Senator, good to talk to you again.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: I have to point out first that you were a sponsor, an author of the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001. In broad terms, this is an effort to extend roughly the same powers. What has you so concerned this time around?

Sen. LEAHY: No, the--when we wrote it the first time, it was right after 9/11. There were some things in there that I like and I want to keep them in the law, but we put a--very tight sunsets on a number of areas because we wanted that to be only a temporary authority to the government. We wanted to have real oversight. Ironically enough, the sunsets are written by me and Dick Armey, who was a very conservative Republican leader of the House at the time. When the first time they said they had to deal on this, they said they were going to do it with seven-year sunsets. I said that would not work. The second year was a four-year sunsets. That's an improvement, but they have expanded some of the most troublesome aspects of the original Patriot Act. The...

INSKEEP: Well, Senator, I know that there are many provisions here. Can you pick out one that you're still concerned with?

Sen. LEAHY: Sure, the national security letters. Those are--you commission these letters and then go after anybody's records. You can go in to investigate them. There's no real ability for somebody to--if they've got the wrong person, for somebody to be really be able to attack them in court.

INSKEEP: This is basically a Justice Department letter that might be sent out asking for some business to turn over your credit records or something like that.

Sen. LEAHY: That's right, and there's no meaningful judicial review of the gag order that comes with this. At least today, you can challenge it in court.

INSKEEP: Although the supporters of that particular measure have said it's only a request for information for a business and a request to keep quiet about it, and what's wrong with asking?

Sen. LEAHY: You can bring a business to a complete halt by doing it, and if you had the wrong person, they have no way of even being able to question this in court. In the same way, you know, today we have--mistakes are made by the government. We've seen Senator Ted Kennedy being refused to go on an airplane at least a dozens times because they said he was on a terrorist list, or somebody with his name, and they had to clear that up. Suppose you run a small business and you're given one of these things. You say, `Look, I'm not the guy you've named in there.' You got to be quiet about it. We're going to tear your business apart, and you can't even question it in court if we don't want you to...

INSKEEP: Senator Leahy, let me...

Sen. LEAHY: ...and that's wrong.

INSKEEP: Forgive me, Senator. I just want to ask briefly about the politics here. Senator Russ Feingold, your fellow Democrats from Wisconsin, is the only senator to vote against this bill the first time around in 2001, and now he says he's willing to hold a filibuster to block passage of the bill this time. Do you think he has the power, the support of at least 40 fellow senators, in order to sustain that filibuster?

Sen. LEAHY: I think he may well. Remember, we passed the Patriot extension unanimously out of the Senate. The version now before us is not the bill that we passed out of the Senate, not by a long shot. And there are a lot of very conservative Republicans who say they will also filibuster it. I've suggested that what we do is still try to improve it before it comes on the floor and, if we can't, then pass a three-month extension and take that three months to get it right.

INSKEEP: Senator Leahy, thanks very much.

Sen. LEAHY: Take care.

INSKEEP: Senator Patrick Leahy is a Democrat of Vermont. Of course, we've only had time to discuss a little bit of a very complicated bill and if you want to find out what supporters and critics have to say about more--the Patriot Act's most controversial positions you can go to our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.