A Justice Department official Tuesday gave the Obama administration’s case for reauthorizing three expiring Patriot Act provisions that expand the government’s powers in counter-terrorism investigations. But House Judiciary Committee Democrats weren’t entirely convinced.
Todd Hinnen, National Security Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General, told House Judiciary Committee members that roving wiretaps, the authority to access business records and the ability to track “lone-wolf” terrorists, or those without visible ties to a foreign terrorist organization, are still needed to probe suspected terrorists. The Justice Department said last week it supported the reauthorization of the three provisions that expire at the end of the year.
Here’s a little bit more about 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.
Hinnen said, however, the administration is open to congressional amendments to the Patriot Act provisions, if they don’t hamper the ability of law enforcement authorities to be effective.
House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-Mich.) said he did not support reauthorizing the provisions without making some changes to them. He and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said they were particularly concerned with the “lone wolf” provision, which has never been used.
“Now is the time to consider improving the Patriot Act, not just extending the provisions,” Conyers said at the House Judiciary constitution, civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee hearing.
Republicans said they supported the Justice Department’s position. The subcommittee ranking member, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), even called Hinnen a “breath of fresh air.”
Conyers, however, was not as pleased with Hinnen, who has worked at the Justice Department since January.
“You know, you sound like a lot of people who come over here from DOJ, and yet you’ve been there for only a few months,” Conyers said at the hearing. “Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?”
Hinnen reassured Democrats throughout his testimony that the Justice Department will be in close communication with Congress as it moves forward on Patriot Act legislation.
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced a bill in March to reauthorize the provisions.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Tuesday that would also reauthorizes the provisions, but allows Congress and the public to better monitor the use of the powers.
“This hearing is only the beginning of a process working closely together to create legislation that will maintain the operational effectiveness of these important [provisions] and protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Hinnen said in his testimony before the panel.