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BILLS FILED TO CHECK FBI POWER

With three provisions of the Patriot Act up for renewal, some want sweeping changes.

New York Times

WASHINGTON - As Congress prepares to consider extending crucial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, civil liberties groups and some Democratic lawmakers are gearing up to press for sweeping changes to surveillance laws.

The House and the Senate are set to hold their first committee hearings this week on whether to reauthorize three sections of the Patriot Act that expire this year. The provisions expanded the power of the FBI to seize records and to eavesdrop on phone calls in the course of a counterterrorism investigation.

A group of senators who support greater privacy protections filed a bill Thursday that would impose new safeguards on the Patriot Act while tightening restrictions on other surveillance policies. The measure is co-sponsored by nine Democrats and an independent.

Days before, the Obama administration called on Congress to reauthorize the three expiring Patriot Act provisions in a letter from Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs.

"We also are aware that members of Congress may propose modifications to provide additional protection for the privacy of law abiding Americans," Weich wrote, adding that "the administration is willing to consider such ideas, provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities."

The first such provision allows investigators to get "roving wiretap" court orders authorizing them to follow a target who switches phone numbers or phone companies, rather than having to apply for a new warrant each time.

From 2004 to 2009, the FBI applied for such an order about 140 times, Robert S. Mueller, the FBI director, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

The second provision allows the FBI to get a court order to seize "any tangible things" deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation - like a business' customer records, a diary or a computer.

From 2004 to 2009, the bureau used that authority more than 250 times, Mueller said.

The final provision set to expire is called the "lone wolf" provision. It allows the FBI to get a court order to wiretap a terrorism suspect who is not connected to any foreign terrorist group or foreign government.

Mueller said this authority had never been used, but he wants Congress to extend it.

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