Legislation would curb PATRIOT Act surveillance

A piece of legislation introduced by a Republican U.S. senator would rein in some of the law enforcement powers granted by the USA PATRIOT Act rushed through Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The Protecting the Rights of Individuals Act, introduced Friday by Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, would make a number of changes to the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001. The bill would require a court order for U.S. law enforcement agencies to conduct electronic surveillance, instead of the current law, which doesn’t require either a specific target or location to be searched.

Murkowski’s bill would also require increased judicial reviews before law enforcement agencies monitor some telephone and Internet usage, and it would limit the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ability to look at sensitive, personal information, including medical, library and Internet records, without demonstrating specific suspicion to a judge.

The bill would require that law enforcement agencies wanting to place roving wiretaps on telephones must show courts information that a crime has been, or will be, committed, and it limits law enforcement requests of libraries to turn over information on the Internet use of their patrons to investigation standards covered in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law requires that law enforcement agents have probable cause to believe that surveillance targets are foreign powers or agents of foreign powers.

The U.S. needed to update its antiterrorism laws after the Sept. 11 attacks, Murkowski said, but Congress needs to make sure the law is working as intended. “We must strike a careful and constitutional balance between protecting the individual rights of Americans and giving our law enforcement and intelligence officials the tools they need to prevent future terrorist attacks,” she said in a statement. “To date it appears portions of the Patriot Act may have moved the scales out of balance. My goal is simply to make sure that our laws are balanced.”

A representative of the U.S. Department of Justice, the primary backer of the PATRIOT Act, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the Murkowski bill. Civil liberties and several other advocacy groups, including the conservative Americans for Tax Reform and the American Library Association, cheered the legislation.

The Murkowski bill, co-sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, would put some checks and balances into the PATRIOT Act, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“The PATRIOT Act was passed in great haste,” Dempsey said. “As often happens with legislation passes hastily, it makes some mistakes. It overreacted to 9/11.”

Dempsey praised the bill for limiting secret searches of U.S. residents’ homes and its limitation of “blanket” searches of information on U.S. residents or their Internet use. “It can’t just be a fishing expedition,” Dempsey said. “We’re not saying the Internet shouldn’t be monitored, but there has to be some meaningful judicial oversight.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the Murkowski bill a “reasonable compromise that protects our civil liberties,” in a statement released Friday.

The bill’s introduction follows the filing of the first-ever lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the PATRIOT Act. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on Wednesday on behalf of six advocacy and community groups whose members and clients believe they are currently the targets of investigations because of their ethnicity, religion and political associations. The challenge, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, targets the part of the PATRIOT ACT that expands the power of the FBI to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of U.S. residents, according to the ACLU.