Two senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced legislation yesterday that would lead to more restrictions on the government's powers under the USA Patriot Act, setting the stage for a protracted legislative battle in coming months over the controversial anti-terrorism law.
The proposal by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would scale back a law that the administration seeks to keep largely intact. But it also attracted immediate criticism from civil liberties advocates who say it does not adequately rein in the government's activities.
In the House, lawmakers moved forward with legislation that would place far fewer restrictions on the government and would make permanent most, if not all, of the Patriot Act's provisions.
Another bill recently approved by the Senate intelligence committee would expand the government's powers in terrorism investigations, allowing the FBI to conduct secret searches more easily and clandestinely read the mail of targeted suspects.
The Patriot Act, approved overwhelmingly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, greatly expanded the FBI's powers to conduct secret searches and surveillance in terrorism-related investigations. Sixteen provisions of the law are set to expire at year's end, and President Bush, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other administration officials have urged Congress to renew the law in its entirety.
But critics on both the right and the left call the act a potential infringement of civil liberties, and some members of Congress are pushing for restrictions. As of last month, nearly 400 cities and counties had joined seven states in approving resolutions condemning the Patriot Act.
The bill proposed yesterday by Specter and Feinstein would add increased public reporting of how some of the act's powers are used and would place greater restrictions on certain warrants, wiretaps and e-mail monitoring. It would also make three of the most controversial anti-terrorism measures temporary and subject to renewal by Congress.
Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a news conference that the bill is "a very careful balance of protecting the country against terrorism with due regard for civil liberties."
Specter said he expects "lively" discussions over the proposal. "We're prepared to listen and talk about this some more," he said.
The proposals engendered immediate criticism from both the Justice Department, which views some proposals as too restrictive, and from civil liberties groups, which consider Specter's bill a starting point.
"It provides more protections and important clarifications than the other bills that are being considered," said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union. "But all the bills fall short of what is necessary to bring the Patriot Act back in line with the Constitution."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said late yesterday that the department is "still in the process of reviewing" the Specter proposal. "We have consistently said that full reauthorization of the Patriot Act is critical to ensuring that law enforcement has the tools they need to protect our country from future attacks," she said.
The bill's proposed restrictions on Internet monitoring appear to be more stringent than what is allowed in regular criminal cases, according to one Justice official who declined to be identified because the legislation is still being debated. Prosecutors also do not want to provide detailed reports about their methods to the public because it could alert terrorists, the official said.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act when it was approved in October 2001, said in a statement that he is "disappointed" in the bill introduced by Specter and Feinstein. "In its current form, I cannot support this bill, but I hope we can work together to improve the legislation in the coming weeks," Feingold said.
In the House, two committees debated a Patriot Act reauthorization bill proposed on Monday by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The House intelligence committee approved a version of the bill that contains a few new controls on FBI agents, including a provision requiring investigators to provide more information to a judge when using roving wiretaps that apply to all telephones a person uses, officials said.