Senate Democrats joined their House counterparts today in questioning the Obama administration’s broad support of three expiring Patriot Act provisions that expand the government’s powers in counter-terrorism investigations.
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats pushed National Security Division Assistant Attorney General David Kris to comment today on proposed legislation that puts stipulations on the reauthorization of Patriot Act powers that sunset at the end of the year, The Associated Press reported. Panel Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation yesterday that reapproves the provisions, but allows Congress and the public to better monitor the use of the powers.
Kris said the Justice Department does not have an official position on the bill beyond the administration’s support of reauthorizing the expiring provisions, according to The AP. The Assistant Attorney General said in his written testimony that the Justice Department is “ready and willing to work with members … to craft legislation that both provides effective investigative authorities and protects privacy and civil liberties.” National Security Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Todd Hinnen also refused to take a position on possible changes to the provisions, which frustrated Democrats at a House Judiciary Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee meeting yesterday.
Here’s a summary of the provisions:
- Lone wolf: Allows government to track a target without any discernible affiliation to a foreign power, such as an international terrorist group. The provision only applies only to non-U.S. persons. It has never been used in a FISA application.
- Business records: Allows investigators to compel third parties, including financial services and travel and telephone companies, to provide them access to a suspect’s records without the suspect’s knowledge. From 2004 to 2007, the FISA court issued about 220 orders to produce business records.
- Roving wiretaps: Allows the government to monitor phone lines or Internet accounts that a terrorism suspect may be using, whether or not others who are not suspects also regularly use them. The government must provide the FISA court with specific information showing the suspect is purposely switching means of communication to evade detection. The government has applied for roving wiretaps an average of 22 times a year since 2001.
Leahy said, according to The AP, that the administration’s position keeps “the cards … rather stacked” in favor of the government.
Kris responded, according to the news wire, “We’re willing to look to see if these tools can be sharpened.”
Like the House Republicans, Senate Republicans supported the Justice Department’s position on the provisions. Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said there is no indication that “there have been any abuses to date,” according to The AP.
Democrats have long been skeptical of whether the Bush administration abused the Patriot Act powers and national security letters, which the FBI uses to obtain evidence without a court order. The Leahy bill and legislation introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) would put more restrictions on the letters.
DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine said in his written testimony to the committee today that the Office of Inspector General found the FBI initially did not “take seriously enough its responsibility to ensure that these letters were used in accord with the law, Attorney General Guidelines, or FBI policies.” But the FBI has taken steps to correct it use of the letters, he said.
“We … believe that as Congress considers reauthorizing provisions of the Patriot Act, it must ensure through continual and aggressive oversight that the FBI uses these important and intrusive investigative authorities appropriately,” Fine wrote in his testimony.