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    New York Times: Battle Looms Over the Patriot Act

    The New York Times reports on a new Senate bill proposing stronger privacy protections on the government’s surveillance programs.

    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 the F.B.I. 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 filed 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 sent 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 “modifications to provide additional protections for the privacy of law abiding Americans” but these proposals must “not undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities.”

    In July, an unclassified summary (pdf) of classified reports from five federal inspectors general concerning the “President’s Surveillance Program” (which included the controversial warrantless wiretapping program) was released. The inspectors general reported that, though Bush administration officials call the surveillance programs “critical” and “extremely valuable,” there is no evidence to support these claims. The inspectors general said that the President’s Surveillance Program “played a limited role in the FBI’s overall counterterrorism efforts,” officials in intelligence community “had difficulty citing specific instances where PSP had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes,” and “most PSP leads were determined not to have any connection to terrorists.”

    The New York Times reports some civil libertarians want lawmakers to revisit the FISA Amendments Act, which was passed last year and greatly expanded the secret surveillance powers of the federal government. The Act also conferred retroactive immunity upon the telecommunications companies that participated in the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. (Last year, Privacy Lives joined a number of groups in a letter (pdf) to the U.S. Senate opposing the FISA Amendments Act.) 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 — which is championed in particular by two Democratic senators, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois — would repeal the immunity provision.

    The measure would also tighten statutory restrictions to ban the “bulk collection” 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.

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