By Ellen Nakashima and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 9, 2009
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday that would renew portions of the USA Patriot Act in an effort to address administration concerns about protecting terrorism investigations.
But several Democrats and civil liberties advocates said the legislation would do little to strengthen privacy protections. And some Republicans said the bill, despite amendments worked out with the administration, would still unduly burden investigators.
By a vote of 11 to 8, the committee sent to the Senate floor a measure that would extend until 2013 three surveillance provisions set to expire Dec. 31. They would allow investigators to use roving wiretaps to monitor suspects who may switch cellphone numbers, to obtain business records of national security targets, and to track "lone wolves" who may be acting alone on behalf of foreign powers or terrorist groups.
The bill would also slightly tighten the legal standard for the FBI's issuing of administration subpoenas known as national security letters (NSLs), which allow the bureau to obtain phone, credit and other personal records, and which the Justice Department inspector general has said are subject to "serious misuse."
Co-sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the panel who is also the chairman of the intelligence committee, the bill would require the FBI to provide "specific facts" showing that the records requested are relevant to a terrorism investigation.
Leahy arranged for a classified briefing Wednesday in which senior administration officials addressed the proposed provisions' impact on counterterrorism investigations, including the ongoing probe of terrorism suspect Najibullah Zazi. The chairman said Thursday that he is "confident" the bill balances national security concerns with key privacy and civil liberties concerns.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) won approval for a package of amendments, intended to meet the concerns of intelligence officials and the administration, that would limit the scope of newly crafted privacy protections for library records, preserve the government's ability to maintain secrecy concerning NSLs in sensitive investigations, and keep current law in place by not imposing unprecedented minimization requirements on information.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said the bill "is heading in the wrong direction." He won an amendment to require the FBI to minimize information it gets through NSLs.
Sessions said the types of records that agents are seeking are no different than the financial records sought by other government investigators.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tried unsuccessfully to require that before issuing an NSL, the FBI must show that the records sought bear some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy and are relevant to a terrorism or spying probe.
Civil liberties advocates expressed dismay. "The administration deliberately took a wrong turn on civil liberties here," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology.