Congress plans scrutiny of Patriot Act

In October 2001, politicians rushed the Patriot Act into law. This time, they're pledging to be more careful.

Congress is returning to the controversial topic of whether to renew key portions of the Patriot Act.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have scheduled hearings on Tuesday that are part of an extended process of reviewing the portions of the 2001 law that are scheduled to expire on Dec. 31. Many of those 16 portions deal with computer and Internet surveillance.

Politicians are nervous about being criticized for a repeat of the process that led to the rapid-fire enactment of the Patriot Act just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time, members of Congress were required to vote on the legislation without having time to read it in advance, and little debate was permitted.

This time around, politicians aren't opening themselves up for that kind of criticism again. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., has scheduled 10 hearings so far on the Patriot Act. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., has said he'll hold at least three of them.

The process has led to some illuminating results. One hearing disclosed police invoked the Patriot Act 108 times in a 22-month period when surreptitiously entering and searching a home or office without notifying the owner.

Another hearing last week provided additional details about how the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers used public libraries' Internet connections. Wail Al Shehri, Waleed Al Shehri and Marwan Al Shehhi visited a public library in Delray Beach, Fla., and asked to use the Internet connection in July 2001, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein said.

Under section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has alarmed librarians, secret court orders can be used to obtain records or "tangible items" from any person or organization if the FBI claims a link to terrorism. The recipient of the secret order is gagged, and disclosing its existence is punished by a prison term. Section 215 is set to expire at the end of the year.

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