updated 10/5/2005 8:53:18 PM ET 2005-10-06T00:53:18

Some prominent business organizations are complaining to Congress that the Patriot Act makes it too easy for the government to get confidential business records.

These groups endorsed proposed amendments on Wednesday that would require investigators to say how the information they seek is linked to individual suspected terrorists or spies. The changes also would allow businesses to challenge the requests in courts and speak publicly about those requests.

This is the first organized criticism from big business of the anti-terror law that was passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It also comes as Congress heads toward a vote on whether to extend some disputed provisions that expire at year’s end.

“Confidential files — records about our customers or our employees, as well as our trade secrets and other proprietary information — can too easily be obtained and disseminated under investigative powers expanded by the Patriot Act,” six business groups wrote the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

‘Lack sufficient checks and balances’
“These new powers lack sufficient checks and balances,” the letter said.

Some of the most powerful lobbying groups in the city signed the letter. It endorses amendments to restrict the record-gathering powers of federal agents, including some changes that are in the Senate’s but not the House’s version of the act’s extension, and one that is in neither bill.

Among the signers are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Association of Realtors.

The restrictions sought by the business groups also have been advocated by a coalition of civil liberties groups and conservative political organizations.

President Bush asked Congress to make permanent the expiring provisions of the existing act. But the Senate bill only would extend the most controversial provisions for four more years; it’s 10 years in the House’s version.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said the administration prefers the House bill and objects to some of the new restrictions in the Senate version. The differences are to be resolved in a Senate-House conference.

Groups endorse secret court
The business groups endorsed a Senate provision that would require federal agents to provide a court that sits in secret to issue Patriot Act warrants with a statement of facts showing “some linkage between the records sought and an individual suspected of being a terrorist or spy.”

Currently the government merely has to certify it is conducting an authorized investigation without providing any facts connecting the records to actual suspects.

They also endorsed Senate amendments that would provide the first “meaningful right to challenge the (Patriot Act court) order when the order is unreasonable, oppressive or seeks privileged information” and the right to challenge the existing permanent gag order covering documents demands made under the act.

Susan Hackett, general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, one of the signers, said it took time for business leaders to formulate a position because the law forbids companies served with orders from discussing them.

“Just after 9/11, nobody wanted to be anti-patriot, so everybody sat back to give the act some time,” Hackett added. “We no longer in that level of emergency so now is the time to participate in the deliberations.”

Other signers were The Financial Services Roundtable and Business Civil Liberties Inc.

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