Among its last acts before adjourning for the year, Congress extended the
original Patriot Act until February 3 after the House refused to accept a
six-month extension. The move prevented expiration of 16 provisions of the
2001 antiterrorism law that otherwise would have ended December 31, 2005.
The short extension gives opponents of some of the law's provisions,
including APA, more time to push for placing some additional controls on the
use of surveillance by federal security officials.
The limited extension was approved after a bipartisan filibuster threat in
the Senate blocked a final compromise that followed the two chambers' passing
different versions of the bill. The compromise bill that resulted from
reconciling the differing Senate and House versions would have permanently
extended 14 of the 16 expiring provisions of the antiterrorism law and
sunsetted two others on December 31, 2009. At the center of the debate in the
Senate was the strength of civil-liberty protections included with the
temporary extensions of the government's authority to use roving wiretaps and
seize business records in terrorism investigations.
The last-minute Senate opposition stemmed, in part, from revelations of
eaves-dropping by the National Security Agency, with President Bush's
approval, on U.S. citizens in contact with foreign terrorist suspects.
APA joined the American Psychological Association, American Academy of
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychoanalytic Association, and
American Counseling Association in alerting their members and members of
Congress about privacy concerns related to the Patriot Act.
APA backed earlier language in the bill that the Senate had supported on
business records offering greater protections to medical records, including
mental health records. But some saw those provisions as watered down in the
compromise bill that emerged from a congressional conference committee.
Among others expressing concerns over the business and medical record
provisions in the final compromise bill, the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) criticized it for allowing the FBI to demand records, including
library, medical, educational, and tax records, of anyone connected to a
terrorist investigation. The final compromise bill would have allowed
physicians who received FBI requests for a patient's medical records to tell a
lawyer and allow a limited right to challenge it in an intelligence court. But
few physicians are likely to go to the expense of challenging the orders,
according to the ACLU.
APA also was concerned about an underlying gag order in previous versions
that would bar health professionals, including psychiatrists, from informing
their patients when their confidential health records are demanded. The
compromise legislation would have left in place the automatic gag order.
It remains unclear whether the extra time to negotiate a longer-term
extension will yield results for those looking to change the law. House GOP
leaders have expressed little interest in further changes to the final
compromise bill, and a majority of the Senate signaled support for the bill in
An analysis of the compromise bill Congress is considering is posted