Senate panel votes to expand Patriot Act

Forget scaling back the Patriot Act.

Instead, the controversial post-9/11 law would be expanded to give the FBI new powers to demand documents from companies without a judge's approval, according to a vote late Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence committee.

The final text of the Senate Intelligence committee's amendments was not immediately available (here's a draft dated last month), and reporters were barred from the secret session during which the vote was held.

But the proposal appears to grant the FBI more power to seek information from banks, hospitals, libraries, and so on through "administrative subpoenas" without prior judicial oversight. The subpoenas are only supposed to be used for terrorism or clandestine intelligence cases.

One other detail: the FBI may designate that the subpoenas are secret and punish disclosure of their existence with up to one year in prison (and five years if the disclosure is deemed to "obstruct an investigation.")

In testimony in April, FBI director Robert Mueller said: "The administrative subpoena power would be a valuable complement to (existing) tools and provide added efficiency to the FBI's ability to investigate and disrupt terrorism operations and our intelligence gathering efforts."

The ACLU denounced the Senate Intelligence committee's vote. "In a move antithetical to our Constitution, the new 'administrative subpoena' authority would let the FBI write and approve its own search orders for intelligence investigations, without prior judicial approval," the group said in a statement. "Americans have a reasonable expectation that their federal government will not gather records about their health, their wealth and the transactions of their daily life without probable cause of a crime and without a court order."

In theory, the expand-the-Patriot-Act bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote. But some negotiations are likely to take place between the Intelligence and Judiciary committee, and that could affect the final form of the legislation.

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