- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Less than 2 percent of all federal search warrants executed fall under the USA Patriot Act’s contentious “sneak and peek” provision that allows for secret searches of property and information, a key House lawmaker said yesterday.

“It’s alarmist rhetoric by some, but only 61 out of 32,000 are delayed-notice warrants,” said Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

Section 213 of the Patriot Act does not expire this year, but critics say the provision must be amended to protect privacy. The Judiciary Committee is conducting several hearings over a two-month period on Section 213 and other Patriot Act provisions.

“Section 213 has not been abused,” Mr. Coble said.

Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald told the panel that criticism of the Patriot Act “is the most successful misinformation campaign in history and is portrayed as a power grab by an administration intent on trampling civil rights.”

“I’m amazed at the ignorance about it,” she said.

Supporters say delaying notice of a search prevents the destruction of evidence or a suspect’s escape, but conservatives and liberals alike say a time limit should be set for notifying a suspect that his property has been searched or computer information seized.

“Right now, the time limit sounds like it extends until the end of the war on terrorism,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat and the committee’s ranking member. “If we don’t eliminate this extraordinary power, we ought to make sure there is some structure and authority to make sure it is not the subject of abuse.”

Former Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the civil liberties group Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, said use of the “sneak and peek” provision should be an exception to the rule, not the norm by bureaucrats.

“We’re not proposing the preposterous hypothetical theory of having to tell Mohamed Atta the government is there to look at his hard drive,” Mr. Barr said. “I have a problem with the government having that kind of authority, because it can be abused very easily.”

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said six suspects have yet to be notified that their property has been searched.

“We use it when we need it. Only with the authority of the court,” said Chuck Rosenberg, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey. “It’s a very ordinary tool that is gravely misunderstood and misconceived.”

The problem is that the searches are kept secret and any abuses are hidden, Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Rosenberg said the secret searches also are used in drug and fraud investigations. He could not provide the number of searches used on terror suspects.

“Is the Patriot Act a perfect piece of legislation?” Mr.Coble asked. “No, but I don’t think it’s as onerous and unreliable as some people believe.”

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