|Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (l) testifies with Central Intelligence Agency Director Porter Goss|
The Patriot Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, gives the government greater power to conduct secret searches and surveillance in a range of criminal cases.
Some lawmakers are concerned that provisions in the Patriot Act set to expire by year's end could undermine civil liberties, and they are demanding changes to the law if those provisions are renewed.
The Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday held a hearing on the matter.
"As we seek to protect national security, we must also ensure that civil liberties and privacy are not sacrificed in the process," said Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman.
Among the law's controversial provisions are one allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain records in terrorism-related cases from businesses and other entities, including libraries, and another allowing so-called sneak-and-peek searches without telling suspects their homes or businesses had been searched.
Legislation has been introduced in the Senate that would, among other things, impose some limits on the government's powers to search Americans' homes or businesses without notifying them for weeks or months. It would also require the FBI to have probable cause in gaining access to Americans' medical, business, or library records.
The House of Representatives is considering similar legislation.
But at Wednesday's Senate hearing, top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials expressed their opposition to amending the provisions or letting them expire.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the provision known as Section 215, dealing with the access to business records:
"It is part of a building block of a case in order to get information to see whether or not there is sufficient information to develop probable cause that would support a search," he said, "My own judgment is that if the standard would change, that 215 would no longer be useful."
Attorney General Gonzales said concerns about the Patriot Act undermining civil liberties are unfounded.
"There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse," he said. "Our nation is stronger and safer, our bipartisan work has been a success. The Department of Justice has exercised care and restraint in the use of these important authorities because we are committed to the rule of the law."
Central Intelligence Agency Director Porter Goss, a former congressman from Florida, also expressed his commitment to protecting civil liberties while at the same time not doing anything to aid terrorists.
"I am very concerned that we draw a line with the all the American people to understand that we may have to be looking into things from time to time that terrorists are trying to take advantage of and use against us, things that we consider benign in our daily life," he said. "And those explanations have to be credible, and they have to be accurate. And we need all the partners in our great enterprise to do that, both legislative and executive, and I would add the media would help, too, if we can have accuracy in what is actually going on.
Mr. Goss said Congress has an important role to play in its oversight responsibilities when it comes to protecting civil liberties.