New documents may influence Patriot Act debate

Papers delivered so far show that the FBI’s office of general counsel lodged complaints about agents’ use of powers.

When Congress reconvenes this month, one of the first chores facing lawmakers will be reauthorizing the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and newly disclosed documents could become a factor in the debate.

The 2001 anti-terrorism law received a last-minute, five-week reprieve in December when Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, rebuffed a six-month extension that the Senate had approved. When the short-term extension was cleared, Sensenbrenner appeared adamant that the current form legislation to reauthorize 16 provisions of the law contains sufficient oversight to protect civil liberties.

President Bush signed the short-term extension into law Friday, so lawmakers now have about a month to negotiate their differences over the civil-liberties protections in the Patriot Act.

Those opposing the current long-term reauthorization bill could have more rhetorical ammunition by the end of the month, as documents from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit trickle out of FBI offices.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center early last year filed a FOIA request but received few documents until a federal district judge in November ordered the FBI to produce 1,500 pages of documents every 15 days until the requests are fulfilled. EPIC is scheduled to receive the latest batch of documents Wednesday.

The previous batch of documents, delivered shortly before Christmas, show that the FBI's office of general counsel had sent to the Intelligence Oversight Board several complaints about agents' snooping activities. The board is comprised of three members, is housed in the White House and reports to the president.

Some of the complaints relate to how agents tracked their targets. One complaint, for example, showed concern over the tracking of a suspect's telephone calls. The agent continued the tracking even after someone other than the suspect started using the phone, said Marcia Hofmann, director of EPIC's open government project.

Another document shows that an FBI agent received an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allowed him to access addressing information on a suspect's e-mails, but he ultimately accessed more information in the e-mails than allowed by the court.

Hofmann said the documents show that Congress should take more time to more fully digest how the administration has used its Patriot Act powers because it is not clear how these incidents were handled.

"I think that the claim that there have been no abuses of the Patriot Act need to be examined in light of these documents," she said.

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