WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law a four-year extension of controversial counter-terrorism search and surveillance powers at the heart of the Patriot Act.
The president signed the act into law after it was approved by Congress and just before the provisions were to expire at midnight (0400 GMT Friday), extending measures adopted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The White House issued a brief statement that Obama had signed the extension into law from France, where he is currently attending a G8 summit.
FBI and intelligence officials had warned that if the Patriot Act was not extended by the deadline they would be robbed of crucial tools in the fight against terrorism — including wiretapping.
“I have no doubt that the four-year Patriot Act extension, that members of both parties will agree to today, will safeguard us from future attacks,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Congress had debated whether to extend the act just temporarily, longer-term or permanently in recent months. In February, Congress approved a three-month extension to allow time for negotiations.
The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones; track a non-US national suspected of being a “lone-wolf” terrorist not tied to an extremist group; and to seize personal or business records or “any tangible thing” seen as critical to an investigation.
The law had drawn fire from an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans tied to the arch-conservative “Tea Party” movement, who say it grants the government too much power and infringes on individual liberties.
Republican conservative Rand Paul sought to impede the extension by adding on several amendments, including a ban on inspecting some archives of arms sellers during terror investigations. The measure was overwhelmingly rejected.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy meanwhile called for greater congressional surveillance in counterterrorism inquiries.
FBI director Robert Mueller wrote to Congress leaders on Wednesday to warn them of the urgency of the matter.
“It is important that these tools be reauthorized without lapsing,” Mueller wrote, opposing proposed amendments which he said “would adversely impact our operations.”
“Certain amendments currently being proposed would impose unique limitations on our ability to investigate foreign spies and terrorists and protect Americans against foreign threats.”
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