September 22, 2009 / 9:47 PM / 10 years ago

Senate Democrat backs extending surveillance methods

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy on Tuesday unveiled a bill to extend three controversial surveillance techniques that are set to expire this year, setting up a battle among Democrats.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy speaks during a testimony by Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington March 29, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Leahy proposed added privacy safeguards while extending permission for authorities to use roving wiretaps, access business records and track suspected foreign militants who may be working individually instead of with a larger group.

“The bill also updates checks and balances by increasing judicial review of the use of government powers that capture information on U.S. citizens and augments congressional oversight,” he said in a statement.

Leahy’s plan contrasts with another Democratic proposal in the Senate, which would impose more surveillance limits, and a fight over the two could distract from President Barack Obama’s primary goal of getting his healthcare overhaul through Congress this year.

Leahy has said he wanted to bolster privacy protections while reauthorizing the techniques that were first approved under the Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress during the George W. Bush administration soon after the September 11 attacks to address intelligence shortcomings.

The Obama administration has said it was open to boosting such protections but not at the expense of undermining the surveillance needs of the intelligence community.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the administration’s request to reauthorize the use of the three surveillance techniques.

The proposal by Leahy and two other Democrats contrasts with a tougher measure offered by a bigger group of Senate Democrats who last week proposed stiffer limits on surveillance and dropping the so-called lone wolf provisions for tracking foreign individuals in the United States.

That group, which includes No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard Durbin, also proposed rescinding legal immunity granted to telephone carriers like AT&T for participating in the government’s controversial warrantless wiretap program.

The senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions, urged Congress to simply acquiesce to the administration’s request to extend the expiring provisions.

“Our continued security requires our continued vigilance and now is the time to set aside divisions and to reauthorize these measures without delay,” Sessions said in a statement.

Put together, that sets up a battle as the panel tries to resolve legislation before December 31, when the authorization for the three techniques expires.

Leahy also proposed revamping so-called National Security Letters, which are essentially subpoenas for individuals’ records, by making the authorization expire in four years and requiring more reporting about how they are used.

Many Democrats and civil liberties groups have complained that the government has abused the use of such letters, which allow the FBI to obtain personal information without court approval.

Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott

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