Both the House and the Senate are set to hold their first committee hearings this week on whether to reauthorize three sections of the Patriot Act that expire at the end of this year. The provisions expanded the power of theÂ F.B.I.Â to seize records and to eavesdrop on phone calls in the course of a counterterrorism investigation.
Laying down a marker ahead of those hearings, a group of senators who support greater privacy protections filedÂ a bill on Thursday that would impose new safeguards on the Patriot Act while tightening restrictions on other surveillance policies. The measure is co-sponsored by nine Democrats and an independent.
Recently, Obama administration sentÂ letters to lawmakers (pdf) urging reauthorization of expiring USA PATRIOT Act provisions. Justice Department officials said in the letters that the administration is willing to consider â€œmodifications to provide additional protections for the privacy of law abiding Americansâ€ but these proposals must â€œnot undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities.â€
In July,Â an unclassified summary (pdf) of classified reports from five federal inspectors general concerning the â€œPresidentâ€™s Surveillance Programâ€ (which included the controversial warrantless wiretapping program) was released.Â The inspectors general reported that, though Bush administration officials call the surveillance programs â€œcriticalâ€ and â€œextremely valuable,â€ there is no evidence to support these claims. The inspectors general said that the Presidentâ€™s Surveillance Program â€œplayed a limited role in the FBIâ€™s overall counterterrorism efforts,â€ officials in intelligence community â€œhad difficulty citing specific instances where PSP had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes,â€ and â€œmost PSP leads were determined not to have any connection to terrorists.â€
The New York Times reports some civil libertarians want lawmakers to revisitÂ the FISA Amendments Act, which was passed last year andÂ greatly expanded the secret surveillance powers of the federal government. The Act also conferred retroactive immunity upon the telecommunications companies that participated in the NSAâ€™s warrantless wiretapping program. (Last year, Privacy Lives joined a number of groupsÂ inÂ a letter (pdf) to the U.S. Senate opposing the FISA Amendments Act.)Â Before passing the legislation, senators voted against several amendments that would have modified or removed the telecom immunity provision. As senator, Obama voted for the bill.
The bill filed Sept. 17 â€” which is championed in particular by two Democratic senators,Â Russ FeingoldÂ of Wisconsin andÂ Richard J. DurbinÂ of Illinois â€” would repeal the immunity provision.
The measure would also tighten statutory restrictions to ban the â€œbulk collectionâ€ of phone calls coming into the United States from overseas. Some security specialists say that they doubt the National Security Agency has that capability today, but that it could become feasible as classified technology advances.