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House bill proposes changes to Patriot Act

House Judiciary Committee leaders on Tuesday introduce a bill to place new restrictions on government surveillance and seizures in anti-terrorism investigations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

House Judiciary Committee leaders on Tuesday introduced a bill to place new restrictions on government surveillance and seizures in anti-terrorism investigations, while allowing the Obama administration to continue some tactics used by its predecessor.

Three important sections of the USA Patriot Act will expire at year's end, unless Congress continues them in the law designed to prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland. The bill, sponsored by three liberal Democrats, only would renew two of them.

The proposal would eliminate the government's authority to spy on a "lone wolf," a non-U.S. citizen suspected of terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group. The Justice Department said the government has never used this authority but wants to keep it available.

Roving wiretaps allowed
The other two provisions would continue with modifications.

Roving wiretaps still would be allowed, to permit surveillance on multiple phones when a suspect keeps switching cell phones.

The bill would restrict surveillance to a single, identifiable target.

And the government still could obtain a court order to seize documents and other tangible items, including business records.

The bill would require the government to produce specific facts, to show the items are relevant to an authorized investigation. Recipients of the search orders would be able to immediately challenge them and any gag order preventing disclosure.

The legislation would increase protections for libraries and bookstores. Records seizures would be prohibited if the material would identify patrons.

A current, 30-day delay in notifying someone of a secret, "sneak and peek" search would be shortened to seven days.

Restrictions on security letters
Other parts of the Democratic proposal would place restrictions on national security letters, which are used by the FBI to obtain information without a court order. The government would have to articulate specific information, showing reasonable grounds to believe the material sought is related to a foreign power or agent.

The sponsors of the Patriot Act changes also proposed amendments to a separate law allowing collection of foreign intelligence information.

The proposal would repeal the retroactive immunity given to telephone companies, who complied with a Bush administration warrantless wiretapping program. Courts would have to determine whether the complying companies acted properly under laws in effect at the time.

All the changes were sponsored by three Democratic lawmakers: John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Judiciary Committee chairman; and two subcommittee chairmen, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved its version of Patriot Act changes and sent the legislation to the full Senate.