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House panel approves Patriot Act changes

The House Intelligence Committee approved Democratic provisions that would place modest controls over the ways the FBI can monitor terror suspects under the Patriot Act.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee approved Democratic provisions Wednesday that would place modest controls over the ways the FBI can monitor terror suspects under the Patriot Act.

Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., opened the session to the public in a limited way by allowing one news organization — The Associated Press — to attend, in a move that aides said was unprecedented.

Three other amendments that Democrats proposed failed, including one that would have blocked investigators from getting records from libraries or bookstores.

The panel approved a measure that would let one provision expire in 2010, unless extended by Congress, that allows the FBI to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists who may be operating on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power.

Federal agents will be required to give more details
Lawmakers also accepted another Democratic proposal requiring federal agents to give more detail to judges about roving wiretaps, which don't require investigators to specify the name of the targeted person or the mode of communication.

The Patriot Act expanded the government's intelligence-gathering powers after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The renewal of the bill, which the panel approved Wednesday by voice vote, would extend more than a dozen of the act's provisions, including one that makes it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share terrorism-related information.

Republicans in the House and Senate trying to renew — and in some cases expand — the Patriot Act say it has been used in a restrained way to combat terror. Some Democratic critics say the measure gives too much power to the authorities and argue that there is little evidence the legislation has produced results.

In the House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, lawmakers are moving toward making most of the expiring Patriot Act provisions permanent, with additional reporting requirements for the Justice Department.

Among the most controversial Patriot Act elements, the library provision permits secret warrants for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" from businesses, hospitals and other organizations.

Sen. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wants four-year sunsets for those two provisions when the bill is debated in his committee.

Hoekstra said he opened the Intelligence Committee's session because the public doesn't often get to see how intelligence legislation is written. The meeting was held in the committee's highly secure, and small, hearing room.

"We are slowly inching our way forward" toward working more in the open, Hoekstra said after the two-hour session inside the cherry-walled Capitol room that is rarely seen by outsiders. Seventeen seals of the intelligence community hang on one wall, an oversized world map on the other.

Congress faced with renewing parts of Patriot Act
The Patriot Act was approved 45 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and now Congress must decide whether to renew 16 parts of it that are set to expire at year's end. Republicans and Democrats repeatedly invoked 9/11 and last week's bus and rail bombings in London as a reason to clarify what authority agencies have.

California Rep. Jane Harman, the committee's top Democrat, said that she supported the bill's renewal but said that it could be significantly improved.

"Mend it. Don't end it," she said.

The panel rejected an amendment that would have let 10 different intelligence powers expire in four years, unless renewed by Congress, such as roving wiretaps. Illinois Rep. Ray Lahood was the only Republican to voice support for the amendment, saying setting expiration dates prods lawmakers to revisit the act.

The committee rejected other efforts Democrats said were aimed at improving the Patriot Act's balance between national security and civil liberties. One, by Harman, would have limited investigators' ability to obtain documentary records from libraries or bookstores. Investigators, however, would still have access to Internet records. The FBI has said terrorists have used computers at libraries and public places to communicate.

Hoekstra said the provisions had the potential to constrain terrorism investigations.

"Now is not the time to nickel-and-dime these authorities," Hoekstra said.

Harman's amendment would have also:

  • Required terrorism investigators to tell a federal intelligence court how business or other records being sought relate to a foreign agent.
  • Required requests for so-called roving wiretaps to include a description of the individual and a time limit on the surveillance.
  • Allowed criminal defendants who are prosecuted using material obtained under secretive intelligence warrants to be given summaries of that material.