Key US lawmakers passed legislation Thursday extending three key provisions of the PATRIOT Act, the sweeping intelligence bill enacted after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Backing a White House request, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure 11 votes to 8 to extend until 2013 three clauses that would have expired by 31 December. The bill now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
The provisions include the "roving wiretap" clause, used to monitor mobile communications of individuals using multiple telephone lines, and the "lone-wolf" provision, which enables spying on individuals suspected of terrorist activity but with no obvious connection to extremist groups.
Lawmakers also extended the life of controversial section 215, known as the "library records provision" that allows government agencies to access individual's library history.
The committee had earlier met in a closed-door meeting with members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence community on ensuring their actions would not impede investigations already underway.
The senators also debated freeing up law enforcement actions that have been hampered by legislation and court rulings since the first program was launched by former president George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, which enabled collecting sensitive information for years without a court order.
Republicans senators have remained critical of placing restrictions on the intelligence community, saying they should more of a free hand in the early stages of investigations.
But their Democratic counterparts have decried the fact that the provisions still do not in their view adequately respect the privacy of ordinary Americans.
Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said he feared handing a "blank check" to law enforcement agencies and criticized the Democrat-controlled committee for not passing safeguards that even Republicans supported during the Bush administration.
"Among the most significant problems is the failure to include an improved standard for Section 215 orders, even though a Republican controlled Judiciary Committee unanimously supported including the same standard in 2005," he said in a media advisory.
"But what was most upsetting was the apparent willingness of too many members to defer completely to behind the scenes complaints from the FBI and the Justice Department, even though the administration has yet to take a public position on any of the improvements that I and other senators have proposed. ... [While] I am left scratching my head trying to understand how a committee controlled by a wide Democratic margin could support the bill it approved today, I will continue to work with my colleagues to try to make improvements to this bill."
Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office said the rights group was "disappointed" that further moves were not made to protect civil liberties.
"This truly was a missed opportunity for the Senate Judiciary Committee to right the wrongs of the PATRIOT Act," he said.
"We urge the Senate to adopt amendments on the floor that will bring this bill in line with the Constitution."