Patriot Act may dodge sunset

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration has used the Patriot Act’s powers to listen to cell phone conversations and examine business records 84 times in 3 1/2 years, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday as Congress began considering whether to renew those powers and other sections of the anti-terror law.

Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller urged lawmakers to make permanent all 15 expiring provisions of the law, some of which have aroused civil liberties concerns. Mueller also asked lawmakers to expand the bureau’s ability to obtain records in terrorism cases without first asking a judge or grand jury.

"Al-Qaida and other groups remain a grave threat to our country, and now is not the time for us to relinquish our tools in that fight," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Several lawmakers are introducing legislation Wednesday to curb major parts of the Patriot Act. Their bill would limit so-called "roving wiretaps" that allow authorities to monitor a suspect’s cell phones and would raise the standard of proof the government has to meet before getting secret warrants to examine business records.

An unusual coalition of groups, including the American Conservative Union and the liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, is backing the new legislation.

Gonzales told lawmakers that the provisions have been invoked sparingly since the Patriot Act became a law in October 2001, just 45 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, expanding the government’s surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.

Authorities have sought roving wiretaps 49 times and business records 35 times, Gonzales said. All the business-record warrants were issued since September 2003.

The government has never used the provision permitting secret warrants for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" to obtain library, bookstore, medical or gun sale records, he said.

But when asked by the committee’s chairman, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whether the administration would agree to exclude library and medical records from the law, Gonzales demurred. "It should not be held against us that we have exercised restraint," he said.

Terror suspects have used library computers, but authorities have gained access to them through voluntary cooperation from librarians, Mueller and Gonzales said.

Comparing the business record provision to a policeman not using his gun year after year, Gonzales said there "may be an occasion" when seeking library and medical records would be very helpful.

"I don’t think your analogy is apt," said Specter, who has suggested it should be harder for investigators to use that provision because it provokes fears that the government will snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans.