Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will propose some "technical modifications" to the controversial USA Patriot Act today in an effort to address the concerns of critics and ensure that the anti-terrorism legislation is renewed by Congress later this year, according to a Justice Department official.
In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales will support changes in the law concerning secret warrants for financial documents, library data and other business records, according to the Justice official. The changes would clearly limit the use of such warrants to national security investigations and would allow targets to mount legal challenges to the search, the official said.
The proposal marks a significant shift for the Justice Department, which under Attorney General John D. Ashcroft had refused to entertain proposed changes to the legislation. It also marks an acknowledgment of the growing clout of critics of the law, who come from both the political left and right, and have persuaded scores of communities around the country to pass resolutions condemning the act.
The law, approved overwhelmingly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dramatically increased the government's power to conduct clandestine searches and surveillance in a range of criminal cases. But about a dozen of its major provisions -- including the records provision that Gonzales has agreed to change -- are set to expire later this year unless Congress acts to renew them.
That has laid the groundwork for a series of hearings in both the House and the Senate in coming weeks over the use of the Patriot Act in the past three years. The Justice Department has argued vigorously in favor of renewing the law, saying that the act gives investigators crucial tools to combat shadowy terrorist organizations and prevent future attacks. Much of the law, including aspects that allow criminal and intelligence investigators to better share information, is not in widespread dispute.
But other parts have come under increasing attack from an unusual alliance of civil liberties groups and politicians, including some conservative organizations and Republican lawmakers.
For example, even as Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III defend the law in the Senate today, Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have scheduled a news conference to introduce joint legislation aimed at scaling back parts of the law. The event will also be attended by representatives of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, an ad hoc alliance that includes groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union. The group was formed last month in an effort to seek changes in the Patriot Act.
Critics of the law say they hope that by pulling together representatives of both parties, they will be able to convince Republican majorities in Congress that parts of the law should not be renewed or should be changed.
"It's extremely important for people to see that this is not simply a Republican or Democratic or right or left concern, but that it cuts across the political spectrum," said former congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who chairs the Checks and Balances group. "I hope it gives members and senators more comfort and some cover so it's not simply that they're supporting the ACLU or the far right."
In addition to the provision on business records, critics are likely to focus on measures that loosened standards for secret intelligence warrants and on a permanent provision that allows delayed notification of searches -- known by critics as "sneak-and-peek warrants."
In the latter case, the Justice Department released statistics yesterday showing that investigators have used such warrants 155 times since October 2001. Justice officials argue that the number is relatively small given the thousands of warrants executed by law enforcement officials.