The Bush administration issued a veto threat Thursday against legislation that would scale back key parts of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.
In a letter to Senate leaders, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the changes contemplated by the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, or SAFE, would “undermine our ongoing campaign to detect and prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks.”
If the bill reaches President Bush’s desk in its current form, Ashcroft said, “the president’s senior advisers will recommend that it be vetoed.”
The threat comes a week after Bush, in his State of the Union address, called for Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act before it expires in 2005. The law, which was passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, expanded the government’s wiretap and other surveillance authority, removed barriers between FBI and CIA information-sharing and provided more tools for terror finance investigations.
Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers, including Republicans, believe the act goes too far and endangers the privacy of innocent citizens.
‘Sneak and peek’ warrants criticized
The SAFE Act, which has not yet had a hearing in either the House or the Senate, was introduced last fall by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other lawmakers of both parties.
In a statement at the time, Craig said the bill was a “measured” response to concerns that the Patriot Act threatened civil liberties and privacy rights.
“This legislation intends to ensure the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation’s fight against terrorism, without in any way impeding that fight,” Craig said.
The bill would modify so-called “sneak and peek” search warrants that allow for delayed notification of the target of the search. In addition, warrants for roving wiretaps used to monitor a suspect’s multiple cellular telephones would have to make sure the target was present at the site being wiretapped before information could be collected.
The legislation also would reinstate standards in place before the Patriot Act was passed regarding library records by forcing the FBI to show that it had reason to believe that the person involved was a suspected terrorist or spy. In addition, the bill would impose expiration dates on nationwide search warrants and other provisions of the Patriot Act, providing for congressional review.
Ashcroft, who last year embarked on a national speaking tour in support of the Patriot Act, said the legislation would “make it even more difficult to mount an effective anti-terror campaign than it was before the Patriot Act was passed.”