RealTime IT News

Bill Aims to Curb Patriot Act Powers

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho) introduced legislation late last week to amend certain sections the U.S. Patriot Act, including provisions that allow the government to issue "sneak and peak" warrants allowing federal agents to download computer files of businesses or individuals without prior notice.

The Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003 (SAFE Act) is co-authored with Dick Durbin (R.-IL) and co-sponsored by Russell Feingold (D.-Wisc.), John Sununu (R.-N.H.), Mike Crapo (R.-Idaho), Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.), Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alas.).

The legislation targets four areas of the Patriot Act: "delayed notice" warrants, wiretaps, surveillance at libraries, and multi-jurisdiction warrants.

Specifically, the legislation will focus on areas of the Patriot Act that have been particularly controversial:

  • Delayed notice or "sneak and peek" warrants. The SAFE Act codifies the pre-Patriot Act standards for allowing these warrants, i.e., if notice of the warrant would (1.) endanger someone's life or physical safety; (2.) result in flight from prosecution; or (3.) result in destruction or tampering with evidence. Also, the SAFE Act requires notice within seven days.
  • John Doe roving wiretaps which do not have to specify person or place. The SAFE Act requires wiretap to identify either the person or place to be wiretapped. SAFE Act also requires ascertaining that the suspect is present at the place to be wiretapped, before collecting information.
  • Library searches. The proposed legislation does not touch the expanded definition of business records to include library records, but it reinstates pre-Patriot Act standard for seizing those business records: the FBI has to demonstrate it has reason to believe that the person to whom the records relate is a suspected terrorist or spy. The SAFE Act also exempts libraries from the section of Patriot that allows access to electronic communications on the strength of an administrative subpoena rather than a court order.
  • "I believe the SAFE Act is a measured, reasonable, and appropriate response to concerns we have with the USA Patriot Act," Craig said. "This legislation intends to ensure the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation's fight against terrorism, without in any way impeding that fight."

    Craig's bill drew the immediate praise of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

    "The Craig-Durbin Act is the culmination of months of growing pressure on the Hill to rollback the most excessive sections of the Patriot Act," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "That the bill could garner strong support from both sides of the aisle shows just how far the government has strayed from the American ideals of check and balances against overreaching government authority."