The nation's two top law enforcement officials urged Congress yesterday to fully renew the USA Patriot Act, arguing that the controversial anti-terrorism law needs only minor tweaking to address the concerns of critics from both sides of the political spectrum.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the efforts of the FBI and federal prosecutors to track and stop al Qaeda operatives would be severely hampered if 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year are not renewed.
"The act has been integral to the government's prosecution of the war on terrorism," Gonzales said. ". . . Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups still pose a grave threat to the security of the American people, and now is not the time to relinquish some of our most effective tools in this fight."
The testimony marked the opening volleys in a series of hearings over the next two months on the Patriot Act, which was passed overwhelmingly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but has since come under criticism from an array of liberal and conservative groups. The law dramatically increased the federal government's ability to conduct clandestine searches and surveillance not only in counterterrorism investigations, but also in other kinds of criminal probes.
In a marked departure from the hard-line posture of his predecessor, John D. Ashcroft, Gonzales said he is "open to suggestions" about changes to the law. He also endorsed small modifications to one provision governing subpoenas of business records, including library records, that has been a primary focus of criticism.
Yet Gonzales and Mueller made clear that they believe most of the law should be made permanent, and Gonzales proposed several changes that would expand the number of foreign nationals who could be subject to secret surveillance warrants. The change was recently suggested by President Bush's commission on intelligence.
In his statements, Mueller also repeated calls by Bush and other administration officials to allow terrorism investigators to use administrative subpoenas, which involve less court oversight and are deployed in cases involving drugs, health care fraud and child exploitation.
The testimony came on the same day that Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed changes to the Patriot Act, including limits on the use of roving wiretaps and delayed notification warrants, in which investigators are allowed to search and seize items without immediately notifying the target of the probe. Their bill, known as the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, has drawn support from a disparate alliance including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union.
During yesterday's testimony, Gonzales for the first time revealed several formerly classified statistics about the Patriot Act. For example, federal investigators have used roving wiretaps -- which apply to any telephone used by a target -- 49 times since the Sept. 11 attacks and have employed delayed-notice warrants 155 times.
Authorities have obtained information under the controversial business records provision 35 times, including driver's license records, credit card records, Internet subscriber records and hotel and apartment records, officials said. Gonzales said the provision has not been used to obtain records from medical providers, gun shops, bookstores or libraries, although he said the administration would oppose any attempt to exempt such categories.
"The department has no interest in rummaging through the library records or the medical records of Americans," Gonzales testified. "We do have an interest, however, in records that may help us capture terrorists. And there may be an occasion where having the tools . . . to access this kind of information may be very helpful."
Gonzales said the Justice Department would support giving recipients of such orders the right to consult lawyers and to mount legal challenges in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But critics say the proposals would merely codify positions the government has already conceded in court and do not go far enough in addressing the most serious problems with the law.
"The problem is that intrusive search-related authorities are capable of being exercised against people who aren't even suspected of wrongdoing, and judicial oversight is minimal," said Gregory T. Nojeim of the ACLU. "We are advocating changes to focus these intrusive powers on the wrongdoers and not on everyone else."