Lawmakers call for limits on F.B.I. power
Washington, D.C.—Republicans and Democrats in Congress called on Sunday for greater restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ability to demand business and personal records in terrorism investigations without a judge’s approval and to retain the records indefinitely.
“We should not ever give up freedom on the basis of fear, and any freedom that we give up should be limited in time and limited in scope,” Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Coburn and other senators were responding to an article on Sunday in The Washington Post about the government’s increasing use of what are known as national security letters to demand records from businesses and institutions, without a judge’s approval, to aid in terrorism and intelligence investigations.
The F.B.I. has long acknowledged that, with new authority granted to it under the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, it has increasingly turned to national security letters as a way of collecting information on suspects. But it has refused demands from members of Congress to make data on the use of the letters publicly available and has provided figures only in limited form in classified settings.
The national security letters became particularly controversial in August after it was disclosed that the bureau had used one to demand internal records from a library association in Connecticut. The legal tool bars recipients from publicly disclosing that they have received such a demand, and the Connecticut recipient has gone to court in an effort to have the restriction removed. The New York Times first identified the recipient of the letter, based on court records, as the Library Connection, a consortium in Windsor, Conn.
The Post reported that the bureau was now issuing 30,000 national security letters a year, a sharp increase over pre-Sept. 11 rates. F.B.I. officials declined on Sunday to say how many letters the bureau had issued but expressed some skepticism about the accuracy of the 30,000 figure.
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, said on “This Week” on ABC that “based on the fact there’s 30,000 of these letters, which is a stunner to me, it appears to me that this is, if not abused, being close to abused.”
Mr. Coburn and other Republicans said they wanted to explore the bureau’s use of the letters as part of a House-Senate conference working to make most parts of the antiterrorism law permanent.
Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said on “This Week” that he was worried about “the overreach of the Patriot Act,” adding, “I have always been concerned about centralization of power and eroding individual rights.”
But as part of the conference negotiations, some Republicans, including Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, are pushing to give the F.B.I. additional power to demand records without a warrant by expanding its authority to issue administrative subpoenas in terrorism investigations.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said he was particularly concerned about a change in policy that allows the bureau to retain and disseminate to other agencies information collected through the letters. Prior policy had required that the material be destroyed if it was not relevant to an investigation.
“Of course it ought to be destroyed,” Mr. Kennedy said on “Meet the Press.” He said Congress should move to include measures in the Senate version of the Patriot Act reauthorization—but not in the House bill—that would reinstitute the “very careful protections” for destroying personal information.
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