A high-ranking Justice Department official defended provisions in the anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act at a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday, saying that "sneak and peek warrants" and library records searches are rarely used but are absolutely necessary.
"People in this country don't understand the PATRIOT Act, and people who understand it don't oppose it," said Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey. "The act is smart, ordinary and constitutional."
Comey focused his defense of the controversial law on his belief that the statute simply codifies and standardizes existing law enforcement tools, such as search warrants executed with little advance warning (which have earned the "sneak and peek" moniker) and searches of business records, such as those maintained by libraries and bookstores.
Because several of the provisions in the post-Sept. 11 statute are scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2005, Comey urged the committee to reauthorize the law. "The PATRIOT Act eased legal restraints that impaired law enforcement's ability to gather, analyze and share critical terrorism-related intelligence information," Comey said.
Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., testified at the hearing about their constituents' fears of the PATRIOT Act. They touted Craig's bill, known as the SAFE Act(S.1709), as a way to put a "satin ribbon" of restraint on the law.
"The SAFE Act clarifies and amends in a minor way the PATRIOT Act's most troubling provisions," said Craig. His legislation would set a seven-day limit on "sneak and peek" searches and only allow law enforcement officials to obtain records of people they suspect are terrorists or spies.
Craig claimed the Justice Department would not discuss the SAFE Act legislation with him and threatened to have it vetoed. The senator said his bill has won the support of a diverse set of organizations, such as the American Conservative Union, the Gun Owners of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the American Library Association.
Comey said Craig's legislation is unnecessary because no abuses directly associated with the PATRIOT Act have been reported. Explaining the act to people would be better than changing the statute to make them more comfortable, he argued.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, defended the act, saying that law enforcement officials have been allowed to inspect library records for years and that "there is no constitutional issue about not immediately notifying people about warrants."
"I am skeptical about efforts to impose a greater burden on the government in terrorism cases than in less serious criminal cases," Hatch said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also praised the law. He has introduced a bill (S.2476) that would repeal the provisions in the current statute that are scheduled to lapse in 2005.
Comey said law enforcement agents need to search records of libraries because terrorists have in the past planned attacks using public library computers for e-mail. He added, "We don't want libraries to be a sanctuary in this country, if you think about it."