The Obama administration promised to negotiate stronger privacy protections for Americans under terrorism surveillance but insisted on retaining current authority to track suspects and obtain records.
Liberals on the House Judiciary Committee were left unsatisfied, clearly wanting the administration to go further and pledge to curb what they consider abuses of the Bush administration.
They repeatedly insisted that the law be rewritten to require better justification for wiretaps and subpoenas, and Committee Chairman John Conyers, a 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 DOJ (the Department of Justice) before," Conyers told Todd Hinnen, deputy assistant attorney general.
Congress considering changes
Congress is starting to consider changes in three expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a counterterrorism law initially passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
These 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 Bush left office.
Hinnen told a Judiciary subcommittee, "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 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., a Republican.
Conyers launched a tirade against a Bush administration incident described in a heavily edit report from the Justice Department inspector general.
The report said that in 2006, the FBI twice asked a special foreign surveillance court for an order seeking "tangible things" in a counterterrorism case.
Danger to free speech rights
The court denied the request both times, citing the danger to constitutional free speech rights. The FBI then skirted the court's refusal and continued the investigation using three National Security Letters, which are basically subpoenas not approved by a court.
When Hinnen initially said he could not discuss the case, Conyers railed that news stories described the incident and asked whether the Justice Department official was questioning the inspector general's account.
Hinnen responded that abusive policies have been fixed since the Obama administration took over.
Three provisions of the Patriot Act are expiring. They provide:
- Roving, court approved wiretaps that allow surveillance on multiple phones. Law enforcement is 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.