House lawmakers seek to curtail anti-terrorism law

Several high-profile surveillance provisions in the anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act would be modified under a bill that Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Texas Republican Ron Paul pledged to introduce on Wednesday.

The bill would limit the Justice Department's power to use "sneak and peek" search warrants that let police delay their notification of suspects about the warrants. Justice's power to obtain business and library records under a foreign intelligence law also would be curtailed.

Those two powers have emerged as among the most controversial elements of the statute that Congress passed in October 2001. The House already has barred Justice from using its funds to implement "sneak and peak" searches, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued to halt the use of the business-records section of the law.

The bill also would limit the government's current ability to indefinitely detain non-citizens and curtail other policies of the Bush administration. Those include the ability for the FBI to monitor attorney-client conversations, enter houses of worship without cause and withhold information that otherwise must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

Kucinich promoted his bill at a press conference with the ACLU.

"We now know that the PATRIOT Act and other measures went too far, too fast," said Gregory Nojeim, chief legislative counsel of the ACLU's Washington office. "Members from both sides of the aisle are calling for corrections to be made, and this bill stays true to Benjamin Franklin's call for a balance between security and liberty."

The new bill comes amid greater focus on the PATRIOT Act's surveillance provisions, including a high-profile speaking tour by Attorney General John Ashcroft. On Sept. 10, President Bush asked Congress to extend surveillance authority further.

In an attempt to counter fears that law enforcement officials excessively peruse business and library records, Ashcroft said he has declassified the fact that provisions in one section of the act have never been used.

"We have not been able to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation in connection with Section 215," Ashcroft said in a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller. "Consequently, I have determined that it is in the public interest and the best interest of law enforcement to declassify this information."

Privacy advocates said Ashcroft and other Justice officials are largely to blame for any misinformation because they have withheld data and failed to engage in public debate.

"It's still not clear that we have the full picture," Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an analysis of the section. "It seems very strange that [Justice] has never once used Section 215 to compel disclosure of travel records or car-rentals records or records of the purchase of bomb-making material or anything else."

Dempsey also picked apart an Ashcroft statement that the section applies only to foreigners, requires judicial approval and must be relevant to existing counter-terrorism investigations. All three statements are untrue, he said.

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