Critics of the USA Patriot Act want the kind of real debate they were denied when the sweeping anti-terrorism law was passed 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he's willing to accommodate them, but he wants all the law's expiring provisions to be renewed. Gonzales was headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday no less determined than his predecessor to defend the Patriot Act against arguments that it intrudes into people's lives. But Gonzales is employing a softer tone than John Ashcroft while making the point that the law has helped prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "The attorney general has said before that if there are suggestions that can add to the government's ability to root out terrorists and aid us in the war on terror, he will certainly work with Congress to do that," Gonzales spokesman Kevin Madden said. "He looks forward to a healthy discussion about those provisions." Gonzales was invited to testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who also wants full reauthorization of the Patriot Act, was to join Gonzales for his Senate appearance. The Patriot Act is the post-Sept. 11 law that expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers. Most of the law is permanent, but 15 provisions will expire in December unless renewed by Congress. On the same day Gonzales was to speak to the Senate committee, Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., planned to reintroduce legislation designed to curb major parts of the Patriot Act that they say went too far.
"Cooler heads can now see that the Patriot Act went too far, too fast and that it must be brought back in line with the Constitution," said Gregory Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. The ACLU is part of an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative groups, including the American Conservative Union, that have come together in a joint effort to lobby Congress to repeal key provisions of the Patriot Act. Among the controverisal provisions is a section permitting secret warrants for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" from businesses, hospitals and other organizations. That section is known as the "library provision" by its critics. While it does not specifically mention bookstores or libraries, critics say the government could use it to subpoena library and bookstore records and snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans. The Bush administration has acknowledged using it only once. But the criticism has led five states and 375 communities in 43 states to pass anti-Patriot Act resolutions, the ACLU says.
Even some Republicans are concerned. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has suggested it should be tougher for federal officials to use that provision. Gonzales already has agreed to two minor changes to the provision, and was expected to address those Tuesday, a Justice Department official said on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt Gonzales' testimony. He will support giving someone who receives a secret warrant under the provision the right to consult a lawyer and challenge the warrant in court, and will back slightly tightening the standard for issuing subpoenas, the official said. Neither change addresses the central concern of opponents, which is that it allows the government to seize records of people who are not suspected terrorists or spies.
Critics say the law allows the government to target certain groups, but the Justice Department counters that no Patriot Act-related civil rights abuses have been proven. Just in case, Craig and Durbin want Congress to curb both expiring and nonexpiring parts of the Patriot Act, including the expiring "library" provision and "sneak and peek" or delayed notification warrants. Those warrants — which will not expire in December — allow federal officials to search suspects' homes without telling them until later. The Justice Department said federal prosecutors have asked for 155 such warrants since 2001. Gonzales also notes that the law has been used in non-terrorism cases. For example, federal officials used it to track over the Internet a woman who ultimately confessed to strangling an 8-months-pregnant woman and cutting the fetus from her womb.