Momentum is building in the Senate for revisions to a law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that enhanced the government's surveillance powers, supporters and critics of the law said on Tuesday during an oversight hearing.
Three Democrats and one Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they want to limit the surveillance elements of the law, dubbed the USA PATRIOT Act. The law also permits the detention of immigrants and monitoring of financial transactions for money laundering.
Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who co-sponsored a bill to curb three surveillance powers, questioned three Justice Department witnesses about the measure. The primary sponsor is Idaho Republican Larry Craig.
In addition to Craig, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont also urged changes in the PATRIOT Act. He said he has bipartisan support for a related bill that would extend the four-year time limit on the surveillance powers in the law to more provisions that impact privacy and civil liberties.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Bush administration "rides roughshod over the basic constitutional principles of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Six Amendments in order to meet the needs of law enforcement, and then insist[s] that a Second Amendment 'right' to bear arms prevails" over crime-fighting needs.
Democratic supporters of the PATRIOT Act said Attorney General John Ashcroft needs to cooperate with Congress. "The department has been less and less willing to share basic information about its activities," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.
"The administration stands to squander the new tools that this body reluctantly passed," he said. "I predict that the act will be repealed if you don't get your act together."
Kennedy, Biden and Leahy criticized Ashcroft for failing to appear at the oversight hearing and instead "barnstorming the country" to defend the PATRIOT Act and criticize the press and advocacy groups for "hysteria" about the law.
But committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Ashcroft has agreed to attend a subsequent oversight hearing and was not invited to Tuesday's, which featured Christopher Wray, head of the criminal division at Justice, and the U.S. attorneys in Chicago and Alexandria, Va.
Hatch defended the PATRIOT Act, as did Republicans Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Hatch said the statute helps law enforcement combat terrorism, illegal drugs, obscenity and child pornography.
Hatch said a more limited anti-terrorism law passed after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 disappointed him because "some on the far right and far left prevented us from getting some of these tools that might very well have saved thousands of lives."
Asked by Kyl what provisions of the PATRIOT Act had proved most useful, Wray cited nationwide court orders, the ability for law enforcement to share information with intelligence agents, and the ability to obtain the e-mail addresses sent from and to suspects.
Feingold said he supports those powers but seeks to curb other, more objectionable provisions of the law.