A senior Justice Department official on Wednesday refused to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee what changes the Obama administration might support to the USA PATRIOT Act, even though Democrats on the panel said additional safeguards must be built into the law.
"I think what has happened is that Congress has seized the initiative here," David Kris, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's National Security Division, told the panel during a hearing.
Kris was repeatedly asked his opinion about two recently introduced bills that would reauthorize and modify three provisions of the PATRIOT Act that expire at the end of this year.
The bills would modify other provisions of the law that do not expire, including the controversial use of national security letters, which are issued without court approval to compel recipients to turn over information. The Justice Department's inspector general concluded in two past reports that the FBI had misused its power to issue national security letters.
The expiring provisions include a "roving wiretap" statute that allows government bugs on any phone used by the person being tapped; language broadening law enforcement access to library and bookstore records; and a "lone-wolf" provision that applies to any noncitizen suspected of engaging in or preparing for international terrorism who is not affiliated with a known terrorist group.
The Obama administration recently told the Senate committee it wants the provisions to be continued and is open to making changes to them.
But Kris Wednesday said the administration is still reviewing the bills. "When you ... change the law, it may have an effect and we just haven't worked through exactly what those changes would mean operationally," he said.
Referring to the need for additional safeguards, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said there have been two previous cases in which the FBI could not get a court order for an investigation and instead used national security letters to bypass the court.
"I think that's why you have a lot of Americans from the right and the left who are worried about intrusive and unchecked government surveillance," he said.
But Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a Judiciary member, questioned whether any proposed changes in the bills would affect a current investigation involving suspects in New York and Colorado who have been linked to an alleged plot to bomb U.S. transit systems.
Kris said he would only respond in a classified session.
On a related front, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine told the panel it is past time for the department to issue new procedures to restrict how information collected on U.S. citizens though national security letters is acquired, retained or disseminated.
"At this point, more than two years have elapsed since after our first report was issued, and final guidance is needed and overdue," he said.