Witnesses haggle over anti-terrorism law provisions

Former Justice Department officials and civil libertarians argued over the merits of a major anti-terrorism law on Tuesday, with the measure's supporters lauding its help with expediting anti-terrorism investigations and its critics saying it imposes undue privacy burdens.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, five nonprofit groups derided either the anti-terrorism law, passed six weeks after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, or post-attack actions of the Bush administration, such as the detention of immigrants.

Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, continued to express strong support for the USA PATRIOT Act and toughly questioned the civil-liberties advocates. But Hatch said he joined ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in giving the law's critics an opportunity to voice grievances.

Some critics -- including former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., Center for Democracy and Technology Executive Director James Dempsey and Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union -- said they belong to a diverse coalition that supports "reform" of the act.

Strossen appealed to the relationship that her organization built with Hatch 11 years ago in supporting a law that sought to protect religious freedom, and referred favorably to a current bill, S. 1709, introduced by three committee members: Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

"None of these modest reforms would interfere with the powers that [Justice officials] have said are necessary to protect us from terrorism," Strossen said.

The measure would require federal agents to meet a higher standard in foreign intelligence investigations before obtaining electronic or physical records stored by libraries and businesses. It also would require delayed notice of "sneak and peek" searches after seven days, and would force law enforcement to specify the targets of their "roving wiretaps."

Two former Justice officials defended the provision for nationwide court orders and fewer restrictions on information sharing among prosecutors and intelligence agents. "The speed and efficiency [of anti-terrorism investigations] was compromised by administrative impediments imposed by antiquated laws" before enactment of the PATRIOT Act, said Robert Cleary, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

As an example, Cleary cited the ability for investigators in New Jersey to obtain warrants for e-mail from subscribers of the free e-mail service Hotmail without having to detail agents to other parts of the country.

Georgetown University law professor Viet Dinh, former head of Justice's Office of Legal Policy and a key drafter of the legislation, also defended the law. In particular, he cited the significance of the change permitting prosecutors to direct foreign intelligence investigations, something barred for years.

Strossen said the provisions defended by Cleary and Dinh demonstrate that "the government remarks are saying, 'We can do a better job by this power,' and the civil libertarians are saying, 'We object to these other powers.'"

But Strossen and Cleary found a point of direct difference when Cleary defended the expansion of sneak-and-peak searches under the act while Strossen attacked it.