Obama stares down Patriot Act criticism

The Obama administration is standing firm in its support of several George W. Bush-era Patriot Act powers in the face of sharp criticism from civil rights groups, liberal Democrats and a Dec. 31 deadline to extend key provisions of the bill.


The Justice Department recently reiterated its request for Congress to extend with few changes key provisions of the Patriot Act: sections that allow roving wiretaps on multiple phones, seizing of business records and a never-used authority to spy on non-Americans suspected of being terrorists even though they have no connection to a recognized terrorist group.

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In late October the Justice Department provided a written response to dozens of senators’ detailed questions posed to Attorney General Eric Holder following his June 17 appearance before the Judiciary Committee.

In the 55-page document, obtained by The Hill, Holder said the administration had recently completed its review of the Patriot Act provisions that were set to expire by the end of the year, a process that involved consulting with national security experts and “other stakeholders.”

In response to a question posed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Holder referred to a “comprehensive assessment of these tools” that the DOJ had provided to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in mid-September and attached a copy of the letter.

“We believe the basic justification offered to Congress in 2001 for the roving authority remains valid today,” Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Leahy. “The roving electronic surveillance provision has functioned as intended and has addressed an investigative requirement that will continue to be critical to national security operations.”

Weich provided similar support for the seizing of business records and the power to monitor foreigners even though they are not affiliated with a terrorist group, the so-called “lone wolf” provision.

Weary from months of clashes over healthcare, Democratic leaders have been quietly trying to avoid a public battle within their ranks on the Patriot Act extension. They also are aware that any effort that appears to weaken the law significantly will leave them vulnerable to Republican attacks heading into an election year that Democrats are weak on national security issues.

At least six bills to reauthorize the act have been offered in the House and Senate, revealing Democratic divisions that must be overcome.

The administration appears to have convinced Leahy and his Senate colleagues on Judiciary, which passed a bill in early October that would renew the expiring powers for four years, with modest changes.

The House Judiciary bill includes slightly stricter standards that the government must meet to win approval for a roving wiretap, access library or bookstore records and issue national security letters, demands for information without a court order.

Despite the limited differences between the two bills, with so few legislative weeks left in the calendar this year, significant opposition remains and could force Congress to pass a short-term extension of the law to buy more time.

enate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Senate Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Kit Bond (R-Mo.) oppose the Judiciary Committee bill, arguing that any changes could hinder the pursuit of terrorist suspects.

Other than the letter to Leahy, so far the Justice Department has not publicly provided detailed reasons for keeping the Patriot Act provisions largely intact. In recent weeks, however, the administration has hailed its interception of an alleged domestic terrorism plot involving a legal U.S. resident from Afghanistan — Najibullah Zazi, whom the government says is linked to al Qaeda — as proof that the Patriot Act needs to be renewed.

Disclosure of the 55-page written response from the Justice Department comes one week before Holder is set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on general oversight issues.

Earlier this week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a Judiciary Committee member, railed about the lack of responsiveness in the answers it received from Holder following his June 17 testimony.

“Instead of answering 24 questions, the Department responded with a five-paragraph recitation of publicly available facts and information,” Grassley said.

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“This is a prime example of what is wrong with the inadequate response to all of our questions; they avoid the questions and filibuster with public facts.”
Grassley also threatened to start holding up judicial nominees if Justice is not more forthcoming.

“This administration rode into town on a campaign of accountability and transparency,” he continued. “Attorney General Holder told all of us that he respected congressional oversight. Yet, in his first set of oversight questions submitted by the committee, he gave us the same non-response responses we’ve seen from the Department.”

In answering other senators’ questions, Holder did not say whether the Obama administration had completed a review that would decide whether or not to withdraw a January 2006 white paper and other classified White House Office of Legal Counsel memos providing legal justification for the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program.

He also gave no indication of when the Justice Department plans to release a highly anticipated report by its internal ethics office regarding the conduct and legal conclusions of Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel lawyers.