The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration has 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.”
The three provisions set to expire Dec. 31 allow investigators to monitor through roving wiretaps suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers, obtain business records of national security targets, and track “lone wolves” who may be acting by themselves on behalf of foreign powers or terrorist groups. […]
Obama’s approach to electronic surveillance has been closely watched since he shifted positions during the presidential campaign last year, casting a vote to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act over the objections of liberals in his party. That law granted telecommunication companies immunity from lawsuits by Americans who argued that their privacy had been violated in an electronic data collection program. […]
Chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees scheduled hearings on the reauthorization of the expiring provisions in the Patriot Act for next week. And Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who raised strong objections to the problems in the previous administration, said Tuesday that they would introduce a bill to enhance privacy safeguards. […]
Several civil liberties groups are exhorting Congress to use the expiration to begin debate on an array of domestic surveillance issues. One priority is national security letters, which require disclosure of sensitive information by banks, credit card companies and telephone and Internet service providers. No judge signs off on these, and recipients are usually barred from talking about the letters.
In the letter, officials said, the roving wiretaps provision is used an average of 22 times a year (since 2001). The business records provision was used about 220 times from 2004 to 2007. The lone wolf provision has never been used, but the administration said it should still be reauthorized as it could “foresee situations in which it would the only avenue to effective surveillance.”