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Renewing US Anti-Terrorism Law Stirs Heated Debate in US Congress

  • Victoria Cavaliere

The controversial U.S. anti-terrorism law, the Patriot Act, was the subject of debate -- some of it heated -- at a congressional hearing Tuesday. VOA's Victoria Cavaliere reports that supporters of the legislation say it is an invaluable tool for fighting terrorism, while opponents say it infringes on civil liberties.

The nation's top law enforcement officials, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI director Robert Mueller, are urging Congress to renew every provision of the Patriot Act--the sweeping anti-terrorism law passed shortly after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Most of the act is permanent, but several controversial provisions are set to expire later this year unless Congress renews them.

Critics say some of the provisions give federal agents too much power to gather personal information in pursuit of terrorist suspects. This includes allowing the FBI to obtain personal records from libraries, hospitals and businesses. Mr. Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday such authority has never been abused.

"By responsibly using the statues provided by Congress, the FBI has made substantial progress in our ability to proactively investigate and prevent terrorism and to protect lives. . . and at the same time, and as important, protecting civil liberties," says Mr. Mueller.

But Senate Democrat Russ Feingold questioned Mr. Gonzales on one provision of the Patriot Act that permits judges to delay notifying a person whose home or property has been searched by federal agents. Mr. Feingold says provision number 213 leaves all citizens open to secret searches, not just terrorism suspects.

"If the FBI were investigating an international terrorist or spy, it could obtain a secret FISA search warrant and never provide any notice to that person, that's correct, isn't it?" says Mr. Feingold.

"Generally yes sir. No notice," says Alberto Gonzales.

"And section 213 has nothing to do with that authority one way or the other, is that right?" says Mr. Feingold.

"That is correct," says Mr. Gonzales.

"So when we are discussing 213, we are talking about searching done to investigate crimes that have nothing to do with terrorism or espionage," says Mr. Feingold.

"It can, but it also includes other kinds of crimes," says Mr. Gonzales.

"So there's no inherent connection to terrorism," says Mr. Feingold.

Democratic lawmakers and civil liberties groups say such provisions must be removed or amended because they infringe on the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

Those who support the Patriot Act in its current form say it puts American's safety above all else.

The debate next moves to the House Judiciary Committee -- where several hearings are scheduled over the next two months.

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