Attorney general defends Patriot Act
Gonzales tells Senate panel he is 'open to suggestions'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday he is "open to suggestions" on changing the USA Patriot Act but would oppose any change that reined in the law enforcement powers approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups still pose a grave threat to the security of the American people, and now is not the time to relinquish some of our most effective tools in this fight," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Elements of the law, which passed the Senate nearly unanimously in the aftermath of the attacks, will expire at the end of 2005 unless renewed by Congress. (Key provisions)
Critics have said those provisions bestow powers on federal agents that are too broad and hope to restrict them as lawmakers debate their renewal.
"Freedom and security are always at tension in our society. We tried our best to strike the right balance," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat. "Now it's time to return to discussion of what aspects we got right and what modifications need to be made."
But Gonzales said authorities have used the authority granted by the Patriot Act in a responsible manner.
"I am open to suggestions for clarifying and strengthening the act," he said. "I look forward to meeting with those both inside and outside of Congress who've expressed concerns about the act. But let me be clear that I will not support any proposal that would undermine our ability to combat terrorism effectively."
Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress the powers of the act are vital in protecting America from a terrorist attack, and Mueller renewed his request for Congress to give the FBI more power to request records without court permission.
Most critics of the law have been Democrats. But Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, joined liberal critics last year in opposing the renewal of several Patriot Act sections.
Conservative and liberal organizations have also formed an unusual alliance -- Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances -- to oppose parts of the Patriot Act. (Full story)
The most controversial of those is Section 215, which authorizes investigators to obtain records deemed necessary to investigate terrorism. Gonzales said that section -- dubbed the "library records provision" by critics -- "has been subject to a great deal of misunderstanding."
Through the end of March, the Justice Department had received 35 subpoenas under that portion of the Patriot Act, Gonzales said. Those subpoenas were for access to records and other items, but none dealt with library, bookstore, medical or gun store records, he said.
Instead, he said, the requests dealt with information regarding driver's licenses, public accommodations, credit cards and phone calls.
Mueller said his agents have obtained library records through "discreet inquiry" without having to invoke the Patriot Act.
"There are people out there on both sides distorting this issue," Mueller said.
Justice Department officials said Monday that Gonzales is prepared to announce he will accept two amendments to Section 215.
One change would allow the subject of a records search to consult with an attorney and to challenge the search warrant in court; the second would limit any request for records to those "relevant" to a national security investigation. That standard currently applies to grand jury subpoenas issued in ordinary criminal probes.
Gonzales' willingness to consider some changes was embraced by several Democratic senators, but the American Civil Liberties Union said it did not go far enough.
"The attorney general conceded that the Patriot Act isn't perfect, and that it can be changed without damaging law enforcement's ability to stop terrorists," ACLU Legislative Counsel Gregory Nojeim told CNN.
But, he said, Gonzales' concessions should have been made "months and in some cases years ago."
The Justice Department also disclosed Monday that it had used delayed-notification search warrants -- the "sneak-and-peek" provision of the Patriot Act -- 108 times. The warrants, which were issued between April 1, 2003, and January 31, 2005, have resulted in 45 seizures, the department said.
Bill would require more oversight
Craig and Judiciary Committee member Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, are co-sponsoring a bill that would require more oversight of investigators who invoke some of the law's provisions.
Craig said the measure, dubbed the "Safe Act," would preserve "the rights and the privacies of free citizens to our country."
"We do not take away the powers of surveillance," Craig said Tuesday. "We do not take away the right and the power of the government to go after those who would do us wrong."
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said critics have been "hard pressed" to prove the law has been abused.
"We held some 24 hearings on this issue, and not one time have they been able to document an abuse," Hatch said.
But Leahy said reports have been difficult to verify "when some of the most controversial surveillance powers in the act operate under a cloak of secrecy."
The measure also is backed by Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. Feingold said the measure would provide "checks and balances" he said were missing from the law when it passed.
"It permits the government to conduct necessary surveillance, but only within the framework of accountability and oversight," he said.
The Justice Department said courts have approved all uses of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, and in no case did a court turn down any federal agent's request for a delayed-notification search warrant.
The government said it had used the "sneak-and-peek" warrants "in a wide spectrum of criminal investigations, including those involving terrorism and drugs" -- an admission that drew a stinging response from the ACLU.
"The Justice Department's disclosure ... confirms our worst fears that these highly intrusive searches are being used primarily outside of the terrorism arena," the group said in a written statement.
CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.