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Feds push for full renewal of Patriot Act

Parts of the controversial post-9/11 law expire soon. The U.S. Justice Department wants to keep them.

WASHINGTON--U.S. Justice Department officials sparred with critics of the Patriot Act on Thursday in a debate over whether the expiring portions of the law should be renewed at the end of the year.

When Congress rushed to enact the legislation in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, certain sections were set to expire. Now politicians are trying to decide whether to renew the 16 sections scheduled to sunset Dec. 31.

A pair of Justice Department representatives speaking on Thursday's panel, held at the Capitol by the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, stressed what they called the importance of renewing the law.

"We're at the end of the beginning--that is, the hearing process is over," said William Moschella, assistant attorney general for the department's legislative affairs division. "We hope the Patriot Act is reauthorized in full."

Patrick Rowan of the department's criminal division added, "We've determined this is going to be a very useful tool for getting to the information we need."

For more than 90 minutes, the opposing sides of the four-member panel butted heads mostly over two sets of powers allowed under the act: Section 215, which permits the FBI to obtain a vast array of records if it believes they would bolster a terrorism investigation, and Section 213, which allows authorities to carry out a search warrant and seize property without giving its owner notice beforehand--called "sneak and peek warrants" by critics.

Of those two provisions, only Section 215 is scheduled to expire. But the idea of its renewal sparked an outcry from Emily Sheketoff, associate executive director of the American Library Association, which has been studying the effects of law enforcement on library activity.

"Let's have there be some transparency," Sheketoff charged, because libraries "have no idea what the DOJ is doing."

She suggested that the department could simply report "aggregate facts" on what materials they're requesting from libraries and how often without compromising its investigations.

It's not the reading habits of "ordinary Americans" that law enforcement wants to scrutinize, Moschella countered: "Terrorists and spies have used public libraries. We would be 100 percent opposed to saying that libraries are safe havens."

Moschella said there is recourse for people whose records are requested, noting that they can "consult a lawyer" or "file a motion to quash" the records request.

"At its core, each of these issues has a legitimate function," said Jim Dempsey, executive director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. What concerns him, he said, are lax standards for applying the surveillance powers, particularly when it comes to requesting records.

Dempsey said he wants to see the standard for requesting records based on "specific and articulable facts" about the person in question: "We saw him sitting in a car with a known terrorist. That's all it takes."