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Senators propose Patriot Act limitations

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A bipartisan group of senators this week announced the latest in a steady trickle of legislative proposals to trim back some of the enhanced search and surveillance powers granted to law enforcement under the USA-PATRIOT Act.

Under the proposed ?Security and Freedom Ensured Act (SAFE), the FBI would no longer be able to obtain "sneak and peek" warrants allowing them to secretly enter a person's home or office, except in cases when an overt search would endanger someone's physical safety, result in a flight from prosecution, or permit the destruction of evidence.

Under current law, as modified by USA-PATRIOT, agents can keep a search secret, with a judge's approval, any time disclosure would seriously jeopardize an investigation or unduly delay a trial. As of April 1st, 2003, the Justice Department had applied for, and received, 47 such warrants.

SAFE would also cap the length of time a search could be kept secret at seven days, though a judge could repeatedly extend the blackout period in weeklong chunks. The bill also introduces a disclosure requirement that would compel the U.S. Attorney General to report to Congress every six months on the number of sneak and peek warrants the Justice Department and FBI sought and obtained.

The proposed legislation would also put limitations on the FBI's use of so-called "roving wiretap" orders, which permit agents to eavesdrop on any telephone or computer used by a suspect. The act would force the FBI to specify a particular person to be surveilled, and to ascertain that the target is at a particular location before beginning their surveillance.

Finally, the SAFE Act would put limits on the FBI's ability to obtain secret national security orders that give them access to a person's utility records, credit card purchases, medical records, and any other documents. SAFE would limit such orders to records of suspected terrorists or spies, while under current law anyone's records are fair game in a terrorism or espionage investigation. The Act would also put some limitations on the FBI's access to a target's library records.

The bill was authored by Senators Larry Craig (R-Id.) and Dick Durbin (D- IL), and is cosponsored by Russell Feingold (D-WI), John Sununu (R-NH), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). "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 said in a statement announcing the bill this week.

In October, 2001, the Senate voted to pass the USA-PATRIOT Act by a margin of 98-1, with Feingold the lone dissenter. It also passed by a wide margin in the House. But since then growing concerns about the potential for abuse of the added surveillance powers have put the Justice Department on the defensive, and the SAFE Act joins several other legislative proposals to roll back, or provide more oversight for, the added surveillance powers.

"The public concern with government over-reaching transcends political affiliation, so it is no surprise to see this level of bipartisan support for the SAFE Act," said attorney Lara Flint with the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement supporting the bill.

The Justice Department says concerns about USA-PATRIOT are based on misconceptions, and that the law has helped the government detect, disrupt, and prevent potential terrorist plots.

Copyright © SecurityFocus

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