Feds uncloak the Patriot Act

As debate begins on portions of the law set to expire, officials summarize how the "sneak and peek" provision has been used.

More information is dribbling out about the exercise of extraordinary powers granted to federal police nearly four years ago as part of the war on terror.

As the Bush administration this week called on Congress to expand the USA Patriot Act, it disclosed how two of the most controversial sections of the law have been wielded by police.

Police invoked the Patriot Act when surreptitiously entering and searching a home or office without notifying the owner 108 times during a 22-month period, according to a one-page summary released by the Justice Department late Monday. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate that police have employed secret court orders to obtain records 35 times so far.

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What's new:
As the Bush administration this week called on Congress to expand the Patriot Act, it disclosed that the section of the law permitting police to surreptitiously enter and search a home or office without notifying the owner has reportedly been used 108 times during a 22-month period.

Bottom line:
Because the Patriot Act has scores of sections, some politicians say that even more disclosure is needed during the congressional review of the law.

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But because the Patriot Act has scores of sections--only 16 are set to expire on Dec. 31--some politicians are saying that even more disclosure is needed during the congressional review of the law over the next few months.

"We have heard over and over again that there have been no abuses as a result of the Patriot Act," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said during a hearing Tuesday. "But it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify that claim when some of the most controversial surveillance powers in the Patriot Act operate under a cloak of secrecy."

Increased calls for openness come as the Bush administration has taken unprecedented steps to limit public scrutiny of the executive branch. The number of classified documents has jumped since 2001, Freedom of Information Act disclosures have been curbed, and the wall of secrecy surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has drawn international condemnation. Open-government watchdog OMB Watch has said that Bush has "vastly expanded the zone of secrecy that surrounds the White House and most of the federal government."

Even though the Patriot Act was approved by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress in the month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, some legislators voted for the measure with the understanding that key portions would be revisited in 2005. This week, the Senate and the House of Representatives are kicking off what promises to be a tumultuous series of hearings on the topic.

Both Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday warned the Senate that the expiring portions of the law must be renewed. Even though Gonzales said he was "open to any ideas that may be offered for improving these provisions," he stressed that any changes should be modest.

Mueller adopted a more aggressive tone, arguing that without the

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