- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said Thursday that she has dropped her previously expressed concerns with a proposed modification of the USA Patriot Act, the nation’s primary counterintelligence law now up for review in Congress.

However, liberal Democrats still think the bill fails to do enough to protect Americans’ privacy, while conservative Republicans are resisting any major changes to the bill passed right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, considering changes to expiring portions of the act, was still too divided at its weekly meeting Thursday to send a compromise bill to the full Senate.

Three sections that expire Dec. 31 set the rules the government must follow when conducting electronic surveillance and obtaining documents and other tangible items in national security investigations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told a Judiciary Committee meeting she had overcome concerns that the bill would hinder an ongoing investigation into a suspected train bomb plot in New York City.

She said modifications added to the bill by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and others “protect both our safety and civil liberties” and would not jeopardize “the biggest [anti-terrorism] investigation since 9/11.”

However, Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said more protection is needed against unwarranted searches of personal and business records and unwarranted electronic surveillance. The government should have to establish a terrorism connection to invade Americans’ privacy, he argued. The current law and proposed changes don’t always require that standard.

Mr. Feingold said there was bipartisan agreement the last time the Patriot Act was reauthorized but added, “I fear this is not how the process is going to play out this year. We need to revisit the entire bill” - not just the expiring provisions.

“Congress cannot give the government overly broad authority and just keep its fingers crossed,” he said.

Republicans, on the other hand, remain wary of any major changes.

“The Patriot Act has been a success,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “I hope we wouldn’t revert to pre-9/11 attitudes” when law enforcement and intelligence agencies did not share information.

He also opposed Mr. Leahy’s plan to extend the expiring portions only through Dec. 31, 2013. At that point, Congress would again consider whether changes in the law were needed.

The expiring Patriot Act provisions provide:

c Roving, court-approved wiretaps that allow surveillance on multiple phones. Law enforcement officials are not required to ascertain that a suspected foreign terrorist is actually using the phones being tapped.

c That businesses produce “any tangible things” at the FBI’s request.

c Authority to conduct surveillance against a so-called “lone wolf,” a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group. This provision has never been used, the Justice Department said.

The legislation now before the Judiciary Committee would increase court scrutiny of the government’s powers to gather and keep information on U.S. citizens. It would increase reviews by Congress of how the government was using the law.

Mr. Leahy’s proposed changes would modify the government’s justification for obtaining business records and other items. Authorities would have to provide a court a detailed statement, to justify that the items were relevant to an authorized foreign intelligence investigation.

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