Congress edged closer yesterday to limiting some of the sweeping surveillance and search powers it granted to the federal government under the USA Patriot Act in 2001, including a provision that would allow judicial oversight of a central tool of the FBI's counterterrorism efforts, according to Senate and House aides.
Under the terms of a tentative deal worked out by congressional staff members in recent weeks, a conference committee set to begin meeting today would probably adhere to the outlines of a Senate bill that sets new restrictions on the government, aides close to the negotiations said. The agreement would not include additional subpoena powers sought by the Justice Department and some Republicans, the aides said.
The House also approved by voice vote a nonbinding resolution that calls for a four-year extension of some Patriot Act provisions rather than the 10-year deadlines included in House legislation earlier this year. Overall, 16 provisions of the law are set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews them.
If these and other compromise measures are approved, it would mark another significant setback for the weakened Bush administration as it battles the GOP-controlled Congress over the limits of its powers related to terrorism and the Iraq war. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other Bush officials have argued for months in favor of the more administration-friendly House version of the Patriot bill, but the Senate version appears to have more momentum.
Administration officials led by Vice President Cheney are also lobbying to exempt the CIA from legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which would ban cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners.
The Patriot Act negotiations come amid new revelations of the FBI's use of "national security letters," which require companies to provide private information about their customers and to keep the request secret. Aided by loosened restrictions under the law, the FBI issues more than 30,000 such letters annually, compared with about 300 a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, sources told The Washington Post.
The House and Senate versions added a level of judicial review for such letters, which now can be approved by any of about 60 senior FBI officials and which receive no routine scrutiny from the courts. The Senate version included broader language than the House, but it was unclear yesterday which version was likely to prevail.
Another key limitation would be included in the tentative deal worked out by House and Senate staff members, according to one Republican aide: The FBI would be required to destroy or return records obtained with secret intelligence warrants if the subjects turn out not to be connected to terrorism or some other crime.
Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), acknowledged that staff members had been negotiating over the Patriot Act but cautioned that lawmakers have not signed off on a final agreement.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of an unusual coalition of liberal, conservative and business groups opposed to some of the surveillance and search powers contained in the Patriot Act, praised the proposed Senate restrictions but said stronger limits are needed on the use of national security letters.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.