- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Obama administration Tuesday promised Congress it would accept stronger privacy protections for Americans under terrorism surveillance, but resisted efforts led by Democrats on Capitol Hill to curb the executive branch’s authority to track suspects and obtain records.

Liberal members of the House Judiciary Committee were left unsatisfied, clearly wanting the administration to go further and pledge to rein in what they consider abuses of the George W. Bush administration.

They repeatedly insisted that the 2001 USA Patriot Act be rewritten to require more justification for wiretaps and subpoenas, and committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, even compared the Obama administration’s position so far with that of the Bush administration.

“You sound like a lot of people who came over from [the Department of Justice] before,” Mr. Conyers told Todd Hinnen, deputy assistant attorney general.

Congress is starting to consider changes in three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, hastily approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The three provisions require the government to seek permission from a special foreign surveillance court for subpoenas and surveillance. The Bush administration, while using the court, also had the National Security Agency - without warrants - eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for terrorist activity. That program ended before Mr. Bush left office.

Mr. Hinnen told a Judiciary subcommittee hearing, “We are ready and willing to work with members on any specific proposals” that would provide “effective investigative authorities and protects privacy and civil liberties.”

Conservative lawmakers want to reauthorize the expiring provisions without changes, insisting the statute helped prevent new terrorist attacks.

“All of this hyperbole” about trampling civil liberties “has not been borne out in litigation. I don’t feel we should break something that doesn’t need fixing,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.

Three provisions of the Patriot Act are expiring. They provide:

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

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

• 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.

Michael German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the hearing that Congress needs to “restore effective checks on executive branch surveillance powers and to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures of private information without probable cause.”

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