Senate Committee Approves Patriot Act Changes
October 8, 2009 - 5:53 PMA divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a revised version of the nation's major counterterrorism law, after intelligence and law enforcement officials assured lawmakers that counterterrorism operations would not be harmed.
The assurances, along with several compromises to bring liberals and conservatives on board, were enough to get the USA Patriot Act revisions released from committee - but did not end an ideological divide.
Few senators were content to simply reauthorize the provisions. Republicans won changes that they said would strengthen law enforcement, and Democrats added language to increase scrutiny of government actions by Congress and the courts.
The 11-8 vote sent the bill to the full Senate, where several senators who voted "yes" said they had enough concerns to oppose the legislation unless more changes are made.
The Patriot Act authorizes law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct court-ordered surveillance and seizure of records and other tangible items in counterterrorism operations.
Conservatives remain reluctant to tinker with a law designed to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States, and liberals demand more protections for Americans' privacy and civil liberties. Both sides, however, agree the post Sept. 11 law must continue.
Looming over the legislation is a Dec. 31 deadline, when three sections of the law will expire. The Obama administration said it is crucial that these sections remain in force, and the bill does that for another four years.
The expiring sections allow roving wiretaps on multiple phones, access to business records and a never-used provision to conduct surveillance of a non-U.S. citizen who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
Republicans had demanded a classified session with Obama administration counterterrorism officials. That briefing took place Wednesday.
"We have taken the administration up on its offer to work with us to 'provide additional protection for the privacy of law abiding Americans' and have done so without undermining the operational effectiveness of the counterterrorism tools ... ." Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said.
"On that last point, there can be no dispute following the classified briefing for members yesterday."
Several of the changes adopted Thursday govern use of National Security Letters, which are FBI demands for information without a court order.
These letters can be subject to a court order prohibiting the recipient from disclosing the letter.
One change would require the government to notify recipients when the non-disclosure order is no longer required. This is aimed at recipients of letters who challenged the order.
If the government meets a legal test for an order not to disclose a national security letter, a judge would have to issue the order.
The attorney general would be given six months to establish procedures to acquire, destroy, and prevent dissemination by the FBI of records received in response to a National Security Letter.
Other changes would:
-Clarify the types of library records entitled to a higher level of review.
-Require the FBI to include specific facts in its written statement supporting the issuance of the National Security Letter. The government would have to demonstrate the information requested is relevant to an authorized investigation.
Liberal Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., sharply criticized his fellow Democrats for agreeing to the compromise bill.
"And 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," he said.
An amendment by Feingold, added last week, illustrates the difficult path the bill will have on the Senate floor. It would change the so-called "sneak and peek" provision of the Patriot Act, that allows the government to perform a search without having to inform the subject until weeks or months later.
The amendment requires that subjects of the searches be notified within seven days, unless a judge grants an extension because it is necessary to keep the search secret.
Republicans said the notification would risk revealing national security secrets and delay investigators with unneeded paperwork.
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