WASHINGTON -- President Bush is urging Congress to reach an agreement on reauthorizing the Patriot Act -- a law he says is essential to fighting terrorism, but liberal and conservative critics contend is a threat to individual liberties.
''The valuable protections of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of this month if Congress fails to act, but the terrorist threats will not expire on that schedule," Bush said yesterday in his weekly radio address. ''In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this vital law for a single moment."
The Patriot Act tore down legal and bureaucratic barriers that kept law enforcement and intelligence authorities from sharing information about terrorist threats, he said. Authorities have used the law to prosecute terrorist operatives and supporters and to break up terror cells in New York, Oregon, Virginia, California, Texas, and Ohio, the president said.
''Before the Patriot Act, it was easier to track the phone calls of a drug dealer than the phone calls of a terrorist," Bush said. ''Before the Patriot Act, it was easier to get the credit card receipts of a tax cheat than those of an Al Qaeda bankroller. The Patriot Act ended these double standards."
Congressional Republican leaders are pressing for passage next week of a new Patriot Act.
Key provisions cover the ability of law enforcement officials to gain access to a wealth of personal data, including library and medical records, as part of investigations into suspected terrorist activity.
The measure would provide a four-year extension of the government's ability to conduct roving wiretaps, which may involve multiple phones, and to seek access to many of the personal records covered by the bill. Also extended for four years would be the power to wiretap ''lone wolf" terrorists who may operate on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power. An earlier, pre-Thanksgiving attempt at a compromise had called for seven-year extensions of these provisions.
Yet another provision, which applies to all criminal cases, would give the government 30 days to provide notice that it has carried out a search warrant.
Lawmakers in both parties have attacked the measure.
Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, argued that the bill lacks ''adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms." He vowed to do everything he could, including a filibuster, to prevent its passage.
It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Republican officials seemed confident the bill would pass the House, but the Senate margin was uncertain.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday that the House-Senate conference report filed Thursday night by the Republican majority did not have the signature of any Democratic conferee. She said she supported efforts to extend the existing Patriot Act by three months to give members of the conference committee more time to agree.
''I cannot support the Patriot Act conference report because it does not secure the right balance between our national security and civil liberties," Pelosi said.
The White House says the bill builds in additional safeguards to ensure that civil rights and civil liberties are protected.
The administration says additional safeguards include more legal requirements for wiretapping, more avenues for citizens to challenge government requests for information that they feel are unfair, and additional audits by the Justice Department inspector general.