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Obama seeks Patriot Act extensions

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Obama administration has asked Congress to extend three contentious provisions of the USA Patriot Act - a bill once described by President Obama as "shoddy" - and urged an appeals court to deny access to U.S. courts for detainees at a military prison in Afghanistan.

Civil liberties groups immediately criticized both moves, which would extend Bush-era terrorism policies that have long been unpopular with Democrats.

In a letter made public Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asking Congress to reauthorize three portions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year.

The three portions permit roving wiretaps, the seizure of certain business records and the monitoring of suspected "lone wolf" terrorists. Mr. Weich said the administration is willing to consider modifications that provide additional privacy protections provided they do not undermine the effectiveness of the provisions.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it is "disappointed" that the administration wants "the reauthorization of the three expiring provisions." The group said, however, that it is "encouraged" by the administration's willingness to discuss reforms to the Patriot Act, which President Obama in 2004 called "a shoddy piece of legislation."

"Though there may be some value to these provisions, they - like many other Patriot Act provisions - are written much too broadly and have already proven themselves to be problematic in the hands of law enforcement," said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "The privacy rights of all Americans will continue to be at risk if we continue to let these statutes remain as they are."

The ACLU blasted the Obama administration Tuesday for a court filing that argued that the roughly 600 prisoners at Bagram air base in Afghanistan should not have access to courts in the United States. A landmark Supreme Court decision gave detainees at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, such access to the courts.

In its 85-page filing, the Obama administration said Bagram detainees should not have access to U.S. courts because the situations at that prison and Guantanamo are not similar for many reasons, such as the Bagram prison location in a war zone in Afghanistan. The filing is part of an appeal from a lower court's ruling that Bagram prisoners can challenge their detention in U.S. courts through habeas corpus, the process of seeking relief from unlawful detention.

"Guantanamo was the Bush administration's effort to do an end run around the Constitution, and the Obama administration is now essentially using Bagram as a way to do an end run around Guantanamo and the constitutional right of habeas corpus found to apply there," said Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the ACLU. "Simply shipping detainees from around the world to an alternative destination is not a solution and flouts the principles laid down by the Supreme Court."

The criticisms of the administration come months after it indicated it would continue the Bush administration's policy of holding some suspected terrorists indefinitely without bringing them to trial. That stance also has been attacked by human rights groups.

But the administration also has taken steps to distance itself from many other Bush-era terrorism policies, including closing Guantanamo, stopping aggressive interrogation tactics that some consider torture and prosecuting some suspected terrorists in federal court.

In regard to the Patriot Act, Mr. Leahy said he is "pleased that the Justice Department has signaled its willingness to work with Congress in addressing the expiring provisions."

"It is important that Congress and the executive branch work together to ensure that we protect both our national security and our civil liberties," Mr. Leahy said.

The committee has scheduled a hearing on Sept. 23 to discuss the expiring provisions.

The provision related to roving wiretaps allows authorities to monitor an individual instead of a particular phone number, which is the common practice in wiretap investigations.

The letter said that authorities apply for roving wiretaps in about 22 cases a year, and can do so only when the suspect is engaged in countersurveillance techniques such as frequently changing phone numbers.

The business record provision allows investigators to seize financial, medical, library and other records of a suspected terrorists.

"The absence of such an authority could force the FBI to sacrifice key intelligence opportunities," Mr. Weich, the assistant attorney general, wrote.

The "lone wolf" provision allows authorities to monitor a person suspected of engaging in terrorism, but who may not be linked to a specific terrorist organization.