WASHINGTON – Lawmakers expressed concern Sunday that the FBI was aggressively pushing the powers of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act (search) to access private phone and financial records of ordinary people.
"We should be looking at that very closely," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It appears to me that this is, if not abused, being close to abused."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed, saying the government's expanded power highlights the risks of balancing national security against individual rights.
"It does point up how dangerous this can be," said Hagel, who appeared with Biden on ABC's "This Week."
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI issues more than 30,000 national security letters allowing the investigations each year, a hundred-fold increase over historic norms, The Washington Post reported Sunday, quoting unnamed government sources.
The security letters, which were first used in the 1970s, allow access to people's phone and e-mail records, as well as financial data and the Internet sites they surf. The 2001 Patriot Act removed the requirement that the records sought be those of someone under suspicion.
As a result, FBI agents can review the digital records of a citizen as long as the bureau can certify that the person's records are "relevant" to a terrorist investigation.
Calling the recent growth in the number of letters a "stunner," Biden said, "Thirty thousand seems like an awful, awful stretch to me."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Sunday that he could not immediately confirm or dispute the 30,000 figure, but he said the power to use the security letters was justified.
"The Department of Justice inspector general in August 2005 found no civil rights violations with respect to the Patriot Act," he said.
Issued by the FBI (search) without review by a judge, the letters are used to obtain electronic records from "electronic communications service providers." Such providers include Internet service companies but also universities, public interest organizations and almost all libraries, because most provide access to the Internet.
Last September in an ACLU lawsuit, a federal judge in New York struck down this provision as unconstitutional on grounds that it restrains free speech and bars or deters judicial challenges to government searches.
That ruling has been suspended pending an appeal to the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a hearing last week the court suggested it might require the government to permit libraries, major corporations and other groups to challenge FBI demands for records.
The Patriot Act provision involving national security letters was enacted permanently in 2001, so it was not part of Congress' debate last summer over extending some Patriot Act provisions.
As the Dec. 31 deadline has approached for Congress to renew provisions of the act, the House and Senate have voted to make noncompliance with a national security letter a criminal offense.
Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the expanded use of security letters was a "clear concern" and that information gathered on citizens should be destroyed if it does not lead to a criminal charge.
Coburn said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he "certainly will" take steps to ensure that the documents are destroyed immediately.