A former Republican congressman urged lawmakers Tuesday to limit the government's ability to search for evidence without immediately telling the investigation's target, a part of the USA Patriot Act (search) that Congress is reconsidering.
While sections of the Patriot Act expire this year, the law's national standards for what are sometimes known as "sneak and peek" searches (search) are permanent.
Still, former GOP Rep. Bob Barr (search) of Georgia told a House Judiciary subcommittee that lawmakers should scale back the delayed notification warrant provision inside the Patriot Act anyway.
Barr said he and other critics understand that sneak and peek warrants are legal and necessary in the battle against terrorism. But the government's usage of them in other areas needs to be limited "to ensure that they remain the exception, not the norm," he said.
Supporters of the provision said such concerns were overblown. "If delayed notification is the threat it was made out to be, we would have heard of abuses by now," said Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute (search).
The delayed notification statute is one of the few parts of the Patriot Act that the GOP-controlled House has voted against since the initial passage of the anti-terrorism law following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City.
The House voted in 2003 to block it, but that provision never became law.
The law permits agents to search the home of a suspected drug dealer, or plant a listening device in the car of a reputed mobster, or copy a computer hard drive of a terror suspect, without notifying the suspect until a later date. That prevents suspects from escaping, destroying evidence or tampering with witnesses, supporters say.
The warrants must be approved by a judge and are permitted in limited circumstances. The Supreme Court in 1979 ruled that "it is well established that law officers constitutionally may break and enter" when such action is the only way to execute a search warrant.
Barr wants the law changed to require a specific time limit between the search and the notification and for it to be limited to national security issues.
The Justice Department has not used the power that frequently, said Chuck Rosenberg, the deputy attorney general's chief of staff. The department has said that the courts authorized 155 delayed search warrants under the Patriot Act through January.
"Out of every 1,000 searches -- and this is a rough estimate -- we use it twice," Rosenberg said.