- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Top Bush administration officials yesterday urged Congress to expand government power under the Patriot Act and to renew 16 provisions they credit for the capture of terrorists and disruption of terrorist plots.

“Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups still pose a grave threat to the security of the American people, and now is not the time to relinquish some of our most effective tools in this fight,” Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The provisions are set to expire Dec. 31.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the panel that he wants to expand his agency’s subpoena powers and to end the use of national security letters, which authorize the FBI to subpoena information related to terrorist activities. He says the current rules cause delays in terrorism investigations.

The FBI has administrative subpoena authority to investigate crimes involving drugs, health care fraud and child exploitation, and wants the same power in terrorism cases, he said.

“The administrative subpoena power would be a valuable complement to these tools and provide added efficiency to the FBI’s ability to investigate and disrupt terrorism operations and our intelligence-gathering efforts,” he said.

The meeting yesterday was the first of numerous hearings of the Senate and House judiciary committees on concerns that some Patriot Act provisions passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks are obtrusive or violate civil liberties.

“There have been questions raised by both the right and the left of the political spectrum,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The hearing yesterday focused on numerous provisions, including Section 206, which allows roving wiretaps that critics say can capture conversations of nonsuspects. The wiretap provision has been used 49 times and is effective in monitoring terrorists and spies, Mr. Gonzales said.

Section 215 allows subpoenas for library, bookstore, medical and gun-store records, but Mr. Gonzales said no document orders have been issued. Asked why the library provision should be reauthorized if it has never been used, he said libraries so far have cooperated in turning over information, but that subpoena power might be needed in the future.

“I do not believe there should be a safe harbor for libraries,” Mr. Gonzales said. “The fact that this authority has not been used for these kinds of records means that the department has acted judiciously. It should not be held against us that we’ve exercised, in my judgment, restraint.”

Mr. Gonzales disclosed for the first time that the Justice Department has obtained 35 court subpoenas under Section 215 to obtain business records.

A contentious provision not set to expire — Section 213, which allows delayed-notice search warrants — has been used 155 times in terrorism, drug, murder and other criminal investigations, Mr. Gonzales said.

“In appropriate cases, delayed-notice search warrants are necessary, because if terrorists or other criminals are prematurely tipped off that they’re under investigation, they may destroy evidence, harm witnesses or flee prosecution,” he said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the panel’s top Democrat, said some lawmakers and the public are suspicious of the Patriot Act because the “most controversial surveillance powers in the act operate under a cloak of secrecy.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the debate should focus on facts, not “a lot of hysteria.”

“In fact, [the critics] are hard-pressed to provide any documented abuses of the Patriot Act,” Mr. Hatch said.

Hours after the hearing ended, Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois announced that they will reintroduce a bill to amend the contentious provisions. The Security and Freedom Ensured Act was denied a vote in the last congressional session despite broad backing from political groups on the right and left.

“Now is the time for Congress to review and amend those provisions of the Patriot Act that are out of line with the Constitution,” said Bob Barr, chairman of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, a national network of conservative groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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