The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill yesterday that would make the controversial USA Patriot Act permanent, but he balked at including some new powers sought by the Bush administration.
The bill proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) largely gives the Justice Department what it has requested in the review of the Patriot Act antiterrorism law, which was enacted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The proposal includes 16 provisions set to expire at the end of this year unless they are renewed or made permanent by Congress.
But the proposed legislation does not go as far as legislation approved in June by the Senate intelligence committee, which voted to make it easier for the FBI to open mail and issue subpoenas without a judge's approval in terrorism probes. Sensenbrenner's bill also calls for stronger oversight of some of the government's powers.
The fate of both the House and Senate measures is uncertain: Sensenbrenner's bill is likely to come under heavy fire from Democrats during a mark-up session tomorrow, while the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering its own bill as a counterpoint to the Senate intelligence committee's version.
The House as a whole voted by a wide margin last month to curtail the FBI's ability under the Patriot Act to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations.
Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner, said in a briefing with reporters yesterday that the chairman's proposal "is a pretty straightforward bill" that could go to the House floor as early as next week.
But Lisa Graves, a senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called Sensenbrenner's proposal "a flawed bill" that includes only "minimal changes" that the Justice Department has already conceded.
"Although the House Judiciary Committee's base bill does not expand the Patriot Act in the unwise and unwarranted way the Senate Intelligence Committee proposed, it can and must be modified to ensure that Patriot powers are focused on terrorists and not ordinary Americans," Graves said in a statement.
The Patriot Act has come under fire from civil liberties advocates and lawmakers concerned about possible abuses. President Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales have pressed for the law's renewal, arguing that it provides vital tools to FBI agents and others seeking to prevent terrorist attacks.
The House Judiciary Committee has held a dozen hearings on various provisions of the law since April, including some that have highlighted tensions between the two parties. On June 10, for example, Sensenbrenner gaveled one hearing to a close and walked out even as Democrats continued to testify with the microphones off.
Sensenbrenner's bill would repeal expiration dates on all the provisions of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. Those include a controversial section that allows the FBI to obtain without a warrant a wide range of records from financial companies and other institutions, including libraries, in terrorism probes. The bill also makes permanent two separate provisions from last year's intelligence reform package that clarified the definition of "material support" for terrorism and made it easier to monitor "lone wolf" suspects unaffiliated with a terrorist group or country.
But the proposal also would tighten some of the requirements that must be met by the FBI in obtaining business records and would establish a judicial review process that allows a judge to set them aside. Gonzales testified in April that the provision has never been used to obtain library, medical, bookstore or gun sale records, but said it is an essential tool for the FBI.
Sensenbrenner's bill also would increase the duration of secret warrants governing searches and surveillance in terrorism and intelligence cases.