Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pushed the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence officials yesterday to share more information on the use and effectiveness of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
"I think we need to have more public disclosure in examining and assessing its impact," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said. "We are to some extent doing oversight in the dark," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
Members at the sparsely attended hearing told Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA Director Porter J. Goss that the public is not comfortable with roving wiretaps, delayed notification searches and new authorities to obtain the library, credit card and health records of individuals who are not the subject of a criminal investigation but who might be of intelligence value in terrorism probes.
But none of the members at the hearing, one of a series in recent weeks to consider reauthorizing 16 provisions of the act due to expire at year's end, suggested they were concerned enough to vote against renewing the provisions or making them permanent.
"From last week's hearings, it appears that there's broad support for the proposition" that the act's provisions should be made permanent," with some changes, said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Gonzales has proposed some technical modifications.
Civil rights groups and politicians, including conservative organizations, have criticized some provisions as lacking enough checks to avoid abuse. Members said their constituents continue to have fundamental questions, as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) put it, about "what agencies within the federal government can, quote, spy, or place American citizens under surveillance . . . Who does what, when?" It was a question easier asked than answered.
"So can the CIA spy on the American people?" Mikulski asked Gonzales.
"The primary responsibility falls upon the Department of Justice, not the CIA."
"Can the CIA spy on the American -- " she tried again.
"No," answered Gonzales, only to be amended later by Mueller. "Surveillance of American citizens for national security matters is in the hands, generally, of the FBI," Mueller told Mikulski. "The investigation or development of intelligence overseas is in the hands of the CIA and NSA [National Security Agency]. And generally, I would say generally, they are not allowed to spy or to gather information on American citizens. But there are limited exceptions to that."
While the National Security Act prohibits the CIA from spying on U.S. citizens in the United States, the agency can, in limited cases, spy on U.S. citizens abroad who are in contact with foreigners who are the target of CIA surveillance for possible terrorism ties.