Senate Panel Backs More FBI Access to Records
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A Senate committee has approved a plan to give new investigative powers to the FBI. The provision would be part of the USA Patriot Act, which is being updated. This provision would allow the FBI to obtain documents, including medical records, without a judge's approval. Civil liberties groups will try to remove those powers before the bill becomes law. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:
Public concern about the USA Patriot Act has brought a spotlight to the ordinarily secretive Senate Intelligence Committee. The key reason is the panel's decision to grant the FBI a new tool. It's called an administrative subpoena. It would allow the FBI to get hold of documents, from medical records to credit card information, without any oversight by a judge. Senator Pat Roberts, chair of the committee, said at a recent hearing that other agencies have long used this power.
Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): If the government can use administrative subpoenas in health-care fraud investigations and in drug cases, then the obvious question is why can't we use them in the international terrorism investigations?
ABRAMSON: Other members of the committee say there's a very good reason. The kinds of records sought in terror investigations are among the most sensitive. On the Senate floor Monday, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden imagined what would happen if a local FBI official went after medical records.
Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): The head of the local field office could issue an administrative subpoena to a hospital director and ask for all the hospital's medical records simply by claiming they were relevant to an investigation. The patients wouldn't even know that their records had been seized. They would be totally in the dark.
ABRAMSON: The administrative subpoena broadens a provision of the Patriot Act that has already sparked tremendous opposition, Section 215, which allows the FBI to get hold of documents needed for terror investigations upon approval by a special court. The administrative subpoena would remove that oversight.
At a recent hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller said having to go to court takes too much time.
Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): If you're comparing on the one hand the use of the 215 process and the administrative subpoena process, they're night and day. The fact of the matter is, the 215 process is somewhat burdensome.
ABRAMSON: But civil liberties groups say the burden of judicial review ensures the FBI does not go on any fishing expeditions through the records of innocent people. Senator Ron Wyden proposed a compromise on Monday.
Sen. WYDEN: Under the proposal I make today, if the FBI needs information right away, right away, the FBI could notify a judge that they were going to get it, and then go get it without waiting for a response.
ABRAMSON: But that proposal was not adopted. The committee tried to balance these new police powers by demanding more information about how administrative subpoenas are used. The FBI will also have to report to Congress on how it uses another tool known as a mail cover, which allows agents to trace letters through the Postal Service. But at the same time, the FBI will get more authority over the Postal Service.
Zoe Strickland, chief privacy officer for the Postal Service, is concerned about language that would take away the authority of the Postal Inspection Service to resist or limit such searches.
Mr. ZOE STRICKLAND (US Postal Service): The inspection service are the experts around mail, so it seems appropriate that they would work hand in glove with the requesting agency, and we're not quite sure how it would work with just a `thou shalt' sort of direction.
ABRAMSON: The Senate's Patriot Act renewal still faces review before the Judiciary Committee, and the House is still holding hearings on efforts to renew key Patriot powers before they expire on December 31st. But the Intelligence Committee's 11-to-4 vote shows there's still strong support in Congress for the Patriot Act.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.