Senate Democrats Propose Surveillance Law Changes

By Larry Margasak | September 23, 2009 | 5:09 PM EDT

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., holds up a copy of National Security Investigations and Prosecutions, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington during the committee's hearing on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act . (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Washington (AP) - The Obama administration, for a second straight day, frustrated Democratic lawmakers Wednesday by declining to say whether it backs their demands for more civil liberties safeguards in anti-terrorism surveillance and property seizures.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee kept pressing Assistant Attorney General David Kris to go beyond previous administration statements that it supports continuing provisions of the USA Patriot Act that will expire at year's end.
"We don't have an official administration position" on any proposed legislation, Kris said.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. had asked whether the administration would back his proposal to continue the expiring sections for four years with revisions and increase audits of the government's actions.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sought a commitment to protect libraries from unreasonable requests for information on people using the facilities.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, asked, "Is there anything (in Leahy's bill) that would impede or affect" a current terrorism investigation in New York and Colorado?
"The cards are rather stacked" in favor of the government, Leahy said.
Kris responded, "We're willing to look to see if these tools can be sharpened."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the only Republican at the hearing, said he doesn't believe "there have been any abuses to date" of the Patriot Act. He said the law, originally enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, gave the government the same powers in terrorism cases that it has to pursue drug dealers and mobsters.
Several Democrats in both chambers said they not only want to revise the expiring provisions but review the entire Patriot Act, to prevent what they contend were civil liberties and privacy abuses by the Bush administration.
"This time around, we have the opportunity to get this right," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
On Tuesday, another Justice Department official gave similar non-responses to the House Judiciary Committee. Liberal lawmakers dominating that panel expressed their dissatisfaction more sharply, with Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., saying he saw little difference so far between the Obama and Bush administrations on protecting Americans' rights under the Patriot Act.
Leahy's legislation would authorize the expiring provisions through Dec. 31, 2013. It also would set the same expiration date for national security letters, which are FBI demands for obtaining tangible items without court warrants.
In making standards tougher for the government in secret requests to a special foreign surveillance court, the bill would require that the records sought be relevant to an investigation. At a minimum, the records must be linked to a suspected agent of a foreign power.
The bill also would modify the current standard for a national security letter. It would require a statement of facts showing reasonable grounds to believe the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation.
Democrats accused the Bush administration of using these letters to skirt the special foreign surveillance court. All three of the expiring sections require approval of the special court.
The expiring Patriot Act provisions provide:
-Roving, court-approved wiretaps that allow surveillance on multiple phones. Law enforcement is not required to ascertain that a suspected foreign terrorist is actually using the phones being tapped.
-That businesses produce "any tangible things" at the FBI's request.
-Authority to conduct surveillance against a so-called "lone wolf," a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
The legislation attempts to increase accountability to Americans about counterterrorism operations. It would require the Justice Department's inspector general to conduct audit reports on the government's use of national security letters as well as document requests to the foreign intelligence surveillance court.
The inspector general previously reported on a 2006 case, when the FBI twice asked the court for an order seeking "tangible things" in a counterterrorism case. After the court denied the request both times, citing the danger to First Amendment rights, the FBI continued the investigation using three national security letters.
The Bush administration separately had the National Security Agency - without warrants - eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for terrorist activity. That controversial program ended before Bush left office.
The Obama administration, for a second straight day, frustrated Democratic lawmakers Wednesday by declining to say whether it backs their demands for more civil liberties safeguards in anti-terrorism surveillance and property seizures.