WASHINGTON – Excessive secrecy is hurting the Bush administration's effort to win renewal of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act (search), lawmakers told top law enforcement and intelligence officials Wednesday.
The administration wants Congress to make permanent all 15 provisions of the law that expire at the end of the year, some of which have aroused civil liberties concerns among liberals and conservatives.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) said there has been no substantiated allegation of abuse of the law since its enactment in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. CIA Director Porter Goss and FBI Director Robert Mueller made similar statements at the hearing of the Senate intelligence committee.
But Sen. Olympia Snowe (search), R-Maine, said fears persist about U.S. authorities spying on Americans and peeking at library records because the administration has released scant details about the use of the law.
"We need to have a more public disclosure to enhance the public's confidence in the way in which this additional and broader authority is being used," Snowe said at the hearing, marked by generally friendly questioning.
The administration also has yet to submit a report about its use last year of a provision of the law expanding the FBI's power to compel Internet access firms and other businesses to provide information about their customers or subscribers, senators said.
"We're to some extent doing oversight in the dark," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I operate under the Ronald Reagan theory: trust but verify. What I do know is we haven't gotten the report that is supposed to be filed."
There was no response from Gonzales or Mueller.
The criticism was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the administration has been unwilling to share information even with lawmakers who have clearance to review sensitive information. The ACLU is part of a broad coalition that backs changes to the law.
Mueller tried to quell some complaints by describing how other Patriot Act provisions were responsible for this week's conviction of an Islamic scholar in Virginia and arrests last year in England of three men who allegedly were gathering information on the New York Stock Exchange and other U.S. financial institutions in preparation for an attack.
The scholar, Ali al-Timimi, was convicted of inciting others to wage war against the United States thanks to the provisions that eased the flow of information between intelligence and law enforcement, Mueller said.
Goss acknowledged that passing information between agencies remained difficult at times, but there was otherwise no discussion of power struggles between the FBI and CIA described in a report last month by a presidential commission on intelligence.
The administration faced some criticism from Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee chairman, who said the FBI has not been aggressive enough in using its new powers, particularly the so-called libraries provision authorizing federal officials to obtain "tangible items" like business records for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.
The provision has been used 35 times since September 2003, but never for library, bookstore, medical or gun sale records, Gonzales has said.
Roberts complained that "the FBI may have been a bit too judicious" by not invoking the section more often, although Mueller said the FBI has other means of obtaining the information.
All three officials said the administration's effort to strike a balance between civil liberties and national security has been successful, demonstrating that Congress should renew the law without an expiration date.
It's in the government's best interest to be extremely circumspect about using the most controversial aspects of the law, Goss said.
"The last thing we want to have is a feeding frenzy" over someone wrongly accused, he said.