Congress May Curb Some Patriot Act Powers
Nov 09 4:57 PM US/Eastern

Associated Press Writer


Congress is moving to curb some of the police powers it gave the Bush
administration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including imposing new
restrictions on the FBI's access to private phone and financial records.

A budding House-Senate deal on the expiring USA Patriot Act includes new
limits on federal law enforcement powers and rejects the Bush
administration's request to grant the FBI authority to get administrative
subpoenas for wiretaps and other covert devices without a judge's approval.

Even with the changes, however, every part of the law set to expire Dec. 31
would be reauthorized and most of those provisions would become permanent.

Under the agreement, for the first time since the act became law, judges
would get the authority to reject national security letters giving the
government secret access to people's phone and e-mail records, financial
data and favorite Internet sites.

Holders of such information _ such as banks and Internet providers _ could
challenge the letters in court for the first time, said congressional aides
involved in merging separate, earlier-passed House and Senate bills
reauthorizing the expiring Patriot Act.

The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the panel has not begun

Under the 2001 law, the FBI reportedly has been issuing about 30,000
national security letters annually, a hundred-fold increase since the when
they first came into existence under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance

Last year, a federal judge in New York struck down the national security
letter statute as unconstitutional because he said the law did not permit
legal challenges to the letters or a gag rule on recipients of the letters.
The administration has appealed.

Civil libertarians lauded the deal's preliminary terms, saying recent
accounts of the FBI's aggressive use of national security letters have lent
credibility to their call for caution.

"Without those checks and balances, there will be abuses," said former Rep.
Bob Barr, R-Ga., of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.

The Bush administration contends there have been no abuses.

"In the four years since the passage of the USA Patriot Act there has not
been a single verified abuse of the act's provisions, including in the
department's own inspector general's report to Congress," said Justice
Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Hashed out over two months by senior House and Senate aides, the preliminary
terms still have to be approved by a panel of lawmakers from each chamber
and then by the full House and Senate. The process is taking shape this
week, with the appointment of House members to the panel on Wednesday and
the bicameral committee's first meeting expected on Thursday.

The power to conduct wiretaps and install covert listening devices without
court approval had been on the administration's wish list for more than a
year but was never seriously considered by either chamber's Judiciary

Both the House and Senate versions of a Patriot Act extension, debated over
the summer, proposed giving the judiciary a role in national security
letters. "The court may quash or modify a request if compliance would be
unreasonable or oppressive," according to a summary by the Congressional
Research Service. The Senate added more conditions: "or violate any
constitutional or other legal right or privilege."

Some version of those curbs is expected to be passed as part of the
compromise bill.

Less specific but looked upon favorably is a proposal to add a new
restriction on evidence-gathering of classified material that would require
investigators to return or destroy any materials that are not relevant to
the probe, the congressional aides said.

Polls show that most Americans do not distinguish between the Patriot Act
and the war on terror, and a majority knows little about the four- year-old
law. But the more Americans know about the Patriot Act, the less they like.

A poll conducted in August by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at
the University of Connecticut showed that almost two- thirds of all
Americans, 64 percent, said they support the Patriot Act. But only 43
percent support the law's requirement that banks turn over records to the
government without judicial approval; 23 percent support secret searches of
Americans' homes without informing the occupants for a period of time. 

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