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Friday, November 11, 2005

Patriot Act

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The Chronicle of Higher Education

Today's News

Friday, November 11, 2005

Legislators Debate Renewing Patriot Act Provisions That Worry Librarians and Others



Two controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act that library groups and civil libertarians have criticized as curtailing Americans' privacy and free-speech rights were picked apart by members of Congress on Thursday as they began hammering out an agreement on renewing provisions of the act that are set to expire this year.

The legislators are members of the conference committee responsible for reconciling Senate and House of Representatives versions of a bill renewing various Patriot Act provisions.

The two provisions that are attracting committee members' attention are Section 215, known as the library provision, and Section 505, which concerns national-security letters. Together, the provisions broadened the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ability to order that businesses and organizations turn over a variety of documents, such as telephone logs and library records. In addition, those who receive such orders are not allowed to reveal to anyone -- not even their lawyers -- that they received the orders.

Thursday's meeting of the conference committee was taken up by members' opening speeches about the Patriot Act. It is unclear whether the committee will meet next week and openly debate the act.

But the opening speeches set the stage for a dispute about what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the government's ability to demand records concerning American citizens. Some members of Congress who expressed concern about the government's abusing its authority cited an extensive article that appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday. It claimed that the government has issued more than 30,000 national-security letters annually since the Patriot Act became law four years ago.

"For those who say there have been no abuses today, I'd like to remind them that the very act of surveilling citizens who aren't even suspected of wrongdoing is an abuse in itself," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "The pendulum must now swing back, and checks and balances must be reinserted into criminal and intelligence investigations."

And Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Congress should demand more "checks and guidelines" before the government is allowed to issue additional national-security letters under the act. He also expressed concern about the government's storing of sensitive personal data about Americans that has been gleaned through national-security letters.

Among those defending the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act were two Republicans, Sen. Pat Roberts, of Kansas, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. They said they were troubled that calls to strengthen Americans' civil liberties by limiting the reach of the Patriot Act could undermine the government's ability to nab terrorists.

"Vigorous oversight by congressional committees has uncovered no instances of abuse," said Mr. Roberts.

The conference-committee meeting came on the heels of a letter that five senators sent Thursday to the U.S. attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales. The senators demanded that Mr. Gonzales reveal how many national-security letters the government has issued since the Patriot Act became law. That information, including how many colleges have received national-security letters, is now classified.

"As Congress debates legislation that would reauthorize and revise the Patriot Act, the American people are entitled to this information," the letter reads. It was signed by Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican; Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat; Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat; Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat; and John E. Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican.

National-security letters have received a lot of attention since August, when a Connecticut library group -- represented by the American Civil Liberties Union -- sued the government after receiving such a document. That case and another case that questions the constitutionality of national-security letters issued under the Patriot Act are now pending in a federal appeals court.

Librarians and civil libertarians say they prefer the Senate version of the Patriot Act legislation over the House's since the Senate bill, they say, contains more protections for ordinary Americans. The Senate bill, for example, stipulates that before the government can issue an order for records under the library provision it must provide facts showing that the individual whose records are sought is connected to a terrorist suspect.

Still, critics say that even the Senate bill does not go far enough. It would, for example, still prevent someone who receives an order for records from talking about it.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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