Anti-terror law negotiators still show differences

Senate committee chair says bill fails to grant the Justice Department enough tools.

The House and Senate conferees appointed to negotiate over expiring provisions in a 2001 anti-terrorism law met officially for the first time Thursday afternoon to reconcile their differences.

Group members reiterated many points they have espoused during the year. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained that the legislation would not adequately provide the Justice Department with the necessary tools to track terrorists.

"We live in a world where radical Islamic terrorists try day in and out to kill Americans and their allies," Roberts said during the meeting. "I am concerned that the U.S. Congress appears reluctant to give our intelligence committee the tools they need."

Roberts earlier this year sought to include in the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization measure new language enabling the FBI to demand information from terrorism suspects by issuing administrative subpoenas. Those subpoenas do not require oversight from the judiciary. The House and Senate versions of the legislation approved rejected the idea.

Early in the negotiations, other conferees expressed support for the Senate version of the legislation, which contains more checks on government power and the FBI's investigatory abilities than the House version.

Although the meeting was billed by the House Judiciary Committee press office as the first of perhaps several meetings to hash out differences, some congressional aides expressed pessimism that many other substantive changes would be made in the next few days. They noted that some staffers struck a tentative deal to adopt the Senate version of the legislation.

Among other things, the Senate version would reinstate higher legal standards for FBI agents who want to secretly access library and business patrons' transactional records. The legislation would require a factual showing that the suspects have some connection to terrorism. Currently, agents only have to tell businesses and libraries that the records are relevant to an investigation.

The Senate version also would allow recipients of secret subpoenas known as national security letters to access lawyers and challenge the requests in court.

The House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, John Conyers of Michigan, supports the Senate version, which does not include provisions on death penalties like the House version. He urged conference members to vote for the Senate version.

"History is rife with leaders reluctant to do the right thing and opted to do what is easy," he said. "I ask my colleagues to join me and do what is right, and make sure that civil liberties are protected once again."