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U.S. Congress Passes Extension of Patriot Act Wiretap Power

The U.S. Congress yesterday approved, and President Barack Obama signed into law, a four-year extension of provisions in the USA Patriot Act that allow law enforcement to track suspected terrorists with roving wiretaps.

The legislation was first passed by the Senate, 72-23, followed by the House, 250-153. Because Obama was in France for meetings of the Group of Eight nations, he directed that an autopen machine, which holds a pen and replicates his signature, be used to sign the bill, the White House said.

The legislation is “an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat,” Obama told reporters at the G-8 summit in the French coastal resort of Deauville today after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The bill was signed before a previous extension, approved by Congress in February, expired at midnight yesterday, the White House said. The new law continues the surveillance powers until June 1, 2015.

The measure “will safeguard us from future attacks,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said before his chamber’s vote. “By extending this invaluable terror-fighting tool, we’re staying ahead” of terrorists who want to attack the U.S., he said.

The bill’s roving-wiretap section allows federal agents to obtain a single warrant to monitor telephone calls of suspects using a series of mobile phones.

Library Records

Other provisions allow authorities to obtain business and library records, and to target so-called “lone wolf” suspects who aren’t affiliated with any terrorist group.

Senator Rand Paul, a bill opponent, tried to delay the Senate vote, pressing for the bill to be amended. The Kentucky Republican said the legislation goes too far in violating privacy rights to keep the U.S. secure.

“Do we want a government that looks at our Visa bill?” he said in a May 24 floor speech. “Do we want a government that looks at all of our records and is finding out what our reading habits are?”

The Patriot Act was passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and many of its provisions are permanent law. Some of its surveillance powers have been opposed by some lawmakers and outside groups, including civil liberties activists.

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