WASHINGTON – The Bush administration's plans to expand a post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law face resistance from a powerful House Republican who says he's not even sure he wants the government to keep its new powers.
James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, complains that the Justice Department isn't sharing enough information for lawmakers to make a judgment on how well or poorly the USA Patriot Act is working.
"I can't answer that because the Justice Department has classified as top-secret most of what it's doing under the Patriot Act," Sensenbrenner said when asked about the future of the anti-terrorism law in a recent interview.
Sensenbrenner maintains that because the department refuses to be forthcoming, it is losing the public relation battle needed to extend the law beyond its October 2005 expiration, much less expand it.
"The burden will be on the Justice Department and whomever is attorney general at that time to convince Congress and the president to extend the Patriot Act or modify it," he said. "But because of the fact that everything has been classified as top-secret, the public debate is centering on (the act's) onerousness."
For example, the American Civil Liberties Union this week used newspaper ads to attack one provision that the ACLU says allows the government to enter homes, conduct searches, download computer contents and Internet viewing histories without informing the occupant that such a search was conducted.
"Enacting policies that allow the government to enter our homes in secret and to collect highly personal information won't make us safer, but it will make us less free," said Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director.
A Justice Department spokesman said the Bush administration will do its best to answer more than 100 questions from give Sensenbrenner and House Democrats about the law and its use in the war on terrorism.
"The courts have upheld our actions time and time again," spokesman Mark Corallo said Tuesday. But "we will do everything we can to cooperate with Congress and with Chairman Sensenbrenner in answering his questions."
Passed weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the USA Patriot Act granted the government broad new powers to use wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping and searches and the authority to access a wide range of financial and other information in its investigations. It also broke down the traditional wall between FBI investigators and intelligence agents.
Justice officials won't say what their new proposal would do, but "we will present Congress with an anti-terrorism package sometime in the near future," Corallo said.
An early draft leaked to reporters in November suggested creating a DNA database of "suspected terrorists;" forcing suspects to prove why they should be released on bail, rather than have the prosecution prove why they should be held; and deporting U.S. citizens who become members of or help terrorist groups.
But that draft was never reviewed by Attorney General John Ashcroft and about two-thirds of it will not be proposed to Congress, according to Justice Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
Advocates say the current law has helped quash other terrorism attacks, but opponents claim it has eroded civil liberties.
Among the advocates is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, who isn't waiting on 2005 to craft legislation to extend the life of the law.
Last week, Hatch sought to extend the act through an amendment to a bill that would further expand government wiretapping authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Lawmakers left for their Easter break before considering it.
"It seems to me to be ridiculous to take away the best law enforcement tool against terrorism before we get rid of terrorism," said Hatch, R-Utah. "This bill has helped us protect ourselves from terrorism both inside and outside the country. It's a tough bill, but it's constitutional and it works."
The Justice Department likely will need full Republican support to renew the anti-terrorism law, with congressional Democrats are already lining up against Hatch's legislation.
A renewal effort "will be highly controversial and is not justified by the Justice Department's own record," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat.