WASHINGTON – The strongest attack yet on the Patriot Act is coming from the American Civil Liberties Union (search), but 309 House members have now joined the ACLU in opposing part of the terror-fighting powers granted to law enforcement by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"I think [law enforcement officials] are trampling on our rights and they are doing it in the name of trying to protect us from domestic terrorism," said Rep. Butch Otter (search), R-Idaho.
Otter led the fight for an amendment to the State, Commerce and Justice departments' spending bill that passed the House last week. The amendment stops funding for so-called "sneak and peek" searches, where federal agents first conduct a search, then notify the suspect after the fact.
The Supreme Court first found "sneak and peek" constitutional in 1979. The Patriot Act (search), which passed the Congress by a margin of 98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House of Representatives in the weeks following Sept. 11, codified how that power is used by federal officials.
If made into law, Otter's amendment would prohibit the use of funds to ask a court to delay notice of a search warrant
At a meeting with first responders on Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Patriot Act's current provisions.
"It allows law enforcement investigators to use the same tools in terrorism that we have used for years in drug cases and organized crime cases," Ashcroft said.
Justice officials argue that by spelling out the specific instances where the searches are allowed, the Patriot Act actually narrows their use.
"We used these tools to gather intelligence and to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction. We used these tools to connect the dots, we used these tools to save innocent lives," Ashcroft said.
While the amendment has passed the House, so far it has not been addressed by the Senate.
At least one senator, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina, has defended the Patriot Act rules.
"We simply cannot prevail in the battle against terrorism if the right hand of our government has no idea what the left hand is doing," Ashcroft quoted Edwards as saying.
Justice officials say that if the amendment becomes law, it won't just stop terrorism investigations from using "sneak and peak," but it could eliminate its use altogether, affecting organized crime, drug and even child pornography cases.
Fox News' Caroline Shively and Anna Stolley contributed to this report.