The nation's two top law enforcement officials urged Congress Tuesday to fully renew the USA Patriot Act, arguing that the controversial anti-terrorism law needs only minor tweaking to address the concerns of critics from both sides of the political spectrum.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the efforts of the FBI and federal prosecutors to track and stop al-Qaida operatives would be severely hampered if 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year are not renewed.
"The act has been integral to the government's prosecution of the war on terrorism," Gonzales said. ". . . al-Qaida and other terrorist groups still pose a grave threat to the security of the American people, and now is not the time to relinquish some of our most effective tools in this fight."
The testimony marked the opening volleys in a series of hearings over the next two months on the Patriot Act, which was passed overwhelmingly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but has since come under criticism from an array of liberal and conservative groups. The law dramatically increased the federal government's ability to conduct clandestine searches and surveillance not only in counterterrorism investigations, but also in other kinds of criminal probes.
In a marked departure from the hard-line posture of his predecessor, John D. Ashcroft, Gonzales said he is "open to suggestions" about changes to the law. He also endorsed small modifications to one provision governing subpoenas of business records, including library records, that has been a primary focus of criticism.
Yet Gonzales and Mueller made clear that they believe most of the law should be made permanent, and Gonzales proposed several changes that would expand the number of foreign nationals who could be subject to secret surveillance warrants. The change was recently suggested by President Bush's commission on intelligence.
In his statements, Mueller also repeated calls by Bush and other administration officials to allow terrorism investigators to use administrative subpoenas, which involve less court oversight and are deployed in cases involving drugs, health care fraud and child exploitation.