WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators is introducing legislation designed to curb the sweeping government surveillance powers authorized by the USA Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Under the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (S. 1709), the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be subject to additional judicial oversight in its search procedures.
"I believe the SAFE Act is a measured, reasonable and appropriate response to concerns we have with the USA Patriot Act," said Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) at its introduction. "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 and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) are cosponsoring the bill.
Limits Secret Searches
The Patriot Act significantly broadened the government's power to conduct secret searches in homes and offices by giving the FBI access to "sneak and peek" search warrants. The warrants allow agents to enter homes or offices and download computer files without notifying the occupants for weeks or even months.
The SAFE Act allows such secret searches only in specific circumstances. They would be permitted if revealing the search would endanger someone's life or safety, if a subject would likely escape prosecution, or if evidence would be destroyed.
The FBI would have to inform the person whose home or office was searched within seven days of the event. Also, the U.S. attorney general would have to report to Congress and the public on how often secret searches occur.
The Patriot Act, with the Intelligence Authorization Act, also broadened the FBI's ability to tap telephone and computer communications. As a result, the FBI can obtain a warrant for a wiretap without specifying either the name of the target or the telephone or computer to be tapped.
The SAFE Act would allow roving taps, but require the FBI to specify either the target's name or the telephone or computer to be tapped.
Record Access Restricted
The SAFE Act also reins in some Patriot Act provisions that let the FBI obtain records. For example, the Patriot Act allows the FBI to get a secret court order requiring any organization--such as libraries, bookstores, hospitals, and ISPs--to turn over entire databases of personal information to support antiterrorism or counterintelligence efforts. U.S. librarians have protested that provision. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that federal investigators have not invoked the measure against bookstores or libraries.
The Patriot Act also lets the FBI invoke a national security letter (which works like an administrative subpoena) to allow agents to search records of electronic communications without court orders. Those records include the date and time stamps on e-mail messages, the identities of the sender and recipient, and Internet usage--including sites visited and when.
Under SAFE, the FBI would have to demonstrate threshold evidence that the person whose records were sought was a suspected terrorist or spy before it could get a court order to access personal and confidential files. The legislation would also prohibit the FBI from using a national security letter to obtain a library computer user's information without a court order.
Because the SAFE Act is supported by a coalition of eight senators from both parties, its proponents say it has a better chance than some other proposals to revise and restrict it.
"The public concern with government overreaching transcends political affiliation," says Lara Flint, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology, an online civil liberties advocacy group that has opposed some provisions of the Patriot Act.
Other supporters on both sides of the aisle are senators Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), John Sununu (R-New Hampshire), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Murkowski has also introduced a separate bill to revamp and rein in the Patriot Act.
The Justice Department has in the past opposed efforts to dilute the Patriot Act.
A House version of the bill will be introduced shortly, says a spokesperson for Craig. Also, the spokesperson notes that the bill's chance of passage depends on how quickly Congress acts before adjourning. It could slide through attached to an appropriations bill, for example.
Craig, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has told the Department of Justice that he will oppose renewal of the Patriot Act when it expires in 2005 unless some of the act's provisions are changed.