Senate Panel Votes to Expand FBI Investigative Powers

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration appears to have succeeded in getting its “wish list” of changes to the 2001 Patriot Act.

In a closed-door meeting, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has approved a bill that would renew — and expand — key provisions of the anti-terrorism law.

While reporters were barred from the secret session, word quickly leaked out that the proposal would make it easier for the FBI to attain “administrative subpoenas” allowing it to conduct covert investigations without the consent or approval of a judge or grand jury.

The measure would give the FBI broad power to force Internet service providers as well as other businesses and institutions to hand over information on customers.

The bill also would allow the FBI to designate such investigations as secret — thereby barring the ISPs from telling customers they are taking place — and make disclosure to customers punishable by up to five years in prison.

While administrative subpoenas would require the approval of FBI Director Robert Mueller or his senior aides, who also would have to report how the subpoenas were being used twice annually to Congress, civil libertarians say such requirements don’t go far enough to protect individual rights.

"Today’s secret vote was a failure for the Fourth Amendment, the American people, and the very freedoms we hold dear,” Lisa Graves, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

“This power would let agents seize personal records … without any specific facts connecting those records to any criminal activity. … Americans have a reasonable expectation that their federal government will not gather records about their health, their wealth and the transactions of their daily life without probable cause of a crime and without a court order.”

The bill must now go before the full Senate for approval.