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Political Notebook

Congress delays debate on Patriot Act and privacy

February 18, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Congress yesterday gave itself three more months to consider changes in provisions of antiterrorism law that have been used to track security threats but have drawn fire from defenders of privacy rights.

The House voted 279 to 143 to add 90 days to the legal authority of three provisions, including two that were part of the USA Patriot Act, enacted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Senate approved the measure Tuesday evening.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill before the provisions expire on Feb. 28.

At issue are law enforcement powers to set roving wiretaps to monitor multiple communication devices and to ask a special federal court for access to “any tangible thing’’ — from business records to library checkouts — that could be relevant to a terrorist threat. The third provision, from a 2004 intelligence act, gives the FBI court-approved rights for secret surveillance of non-American “lone wolf’’ suspects not known to be tied to specific terrorist groups.

Unlike other sections of the Patriot Act, the provisions were not made permanent because of concerns they gave the government too much power to spy on people. Those concerns came from both the right and the left.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin and an author of the original Patriot Act, promised hearings but expressed frustration with critics. “None of these three provisions have been held unconstitutional by a court,’’ he said. “No court has found that civil liberties have been violated.’’

The debate began yesterday when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up legislation from committee chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, that would extend the three provisions through 2013 while expanding safeguards for civil liberties.

Leahy would also set a 2013 expiration date for the FBI’s power to issue secret “national security letters’’ compelling telephone companies, banks, and others to turn over individuals’ records.

Leahy said that the Justice Department under President Obama has implemented improved oversight measures, but he said there is a need to codify these measures.

— Associated Press

FDA said to be too slow, too fast on device approvals

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is approving medical devices too slowly. Or too quickly — depending on whom you ask. House lawmakers heard both arguments yesterday at a hearing examining the FDA’s regulation of medical devices, a $120 billion industry.

The FDA is in the process of overhauling the 35-year old system used to clear most devices, triggering a slew of reports and analyses.

Manufacturers say FDA reviews have gotten longer and less predictable, forcing some companies to launch their devices overseas to stay in business. They say US patients no longer have access to the latest treatments, forcing some to fly to Europe.

But consumer safety advocates say the opposite: The FDA is clearing too many devices, too quickly, jeopardizing patient safety, they maintain.

Can they both be right?

“Not unless we’re in an episode of ‘Star Trek’ with parallel universes,’’ said Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, who directs the FDA’s program on medical devices.

Shuren said the US system is not inherently slower than Europe’s, though it does require an extra level of evidence. European regulators require that a device be safe and perform as described on its label. The FDA has those standards but also requires that the device be proven to successfully treat a disease.

Shuren points to a handful of devices that were rejected by the FDA and approved in Europe, only to be recalled for safety reasons.

“Just because a technology is available in another country doesn’t mean it works, or even that it’s necessarily safe,’’ he said.

The main problem the FDA has encountered in recent years, according to Shuren, is the declining quality of applications from device makers.

He said that more than 50 percent of the applications for conventional medical devices are missing key information, leading to delays that should have been avoided.

— Associated Press

US courthouse named to honor slain judge

WASHINGTON — In a bittersweet moment for Arizona, President Obama yesterday signed into law a bill that names a new courthouse after John M. Roll, the federal judge slain on Jan. 8 in the shootings that wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Roll had stopped to visit Giffords at a Tucson shopping center where six people were killed and 13 wounded in the shooting.

Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, attended the signing ceremony. Though Giffords and Roll came from different ends of the political spectrum, she said the two spoke frequently about the growing caseload in Arizona’s federal courts as a result of human and drug smuggling along the border with Mexico.

“We worked really closely with him,’’ Carusone said. “There are few people who I know where we had carte blanche authority from her to do everything possible to help. Judge Roll was one of them.’’

Construction of the courthouse in Yuma, is scheduled to begin in July and finish by 2013.

— Associated Press

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