The USA PATRIOT Act was enacted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sixteen provisions of the law are set to expire by the end of this year. Both chambers have passed versions of reauthorization legislation, but they have significant differences. The Senate measure contains language that would implement stricter oversight over the FBI's terrorism surveillance and investigatory activities.
Documents recently made available to the public show that FBI lawyers have been investigating 13 cases of surveillance abuses. Those are cases where FBI agents allegedly spied on suspects without obtaining the proper permissions and oversight needed. The information emerged as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The results of the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit undermine the Justice Department's argument throughout congressional hearings this year that lawmakers do not need to implement more mechanisms to oversee FBI surveillance. The department argues that there has been no evidence to prove that agents have abused their powers.
House and Senate negotiators had been scheduled to work on reconciling the different versions last week. But House leaders have delayed even naming conferees.
Staffers from both chambers have been gathering informally to discuss details of the bill. Justice's representatives have been attending those meetings.
"The only reason that they are in the meetings is not to negotiate but to answer questions about the use of law enforcement authority," said Terry Shawn, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
But news of Justice's presence in the pre-conference meetings angered some coalition members. Michael Ostrolenk, the director of government affairs for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, said Justice's attendance is disturbing.
"We find that very, very disturbing, and members who took an oath vowing to observe the separation of powers should immediately call for the withdrawal of these [department] officials from the meetings," he said.
Justice officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.