Authority to Spy on Americans Unclear as Patriot Act Expires

"Where the FBI is investigating a particle person, where the FBI has reasonable suspicion a person is acting for an agent or on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization, they have robust authorities, and that is perfectly appropriate and justifiable," German told ABC News.

"But what the national security letters do is allow them [the FBI] to collect information about people they don't suspect of doing anything wrong. And that's just a bridge too far," he said.

The House agrees with the ACLU and voted to restrict the secret letters only to cases where officials can prove the suspect is a terrorist, engaged in terrorist activities, or are in contact with terrorists.

"Unless we get it right, I think we risk not just shredding our constitution which I'm not in favor of, but shredding our way of life," said Rep. Jane Harman, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee.

But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., denies that any civil liberties have been violated related to the use of any provision of the Patriot Act, and points out that the same secret letters existed before the Patriot Act was enacted to fight terrorism at home.

"The Patriot Act has been misused by some as a springboard to launch limitless allegations that are not only unsubstantiated but are false and irresponsible. The fact remains that the USA Patriot Act is vital to maintaining America's safety," he said.

"The Obama Administration's support of these reauthorizations will hopefully put an end to the myths and the hyperbole that surrounds the Patriot Act, as it is a needed piece of legislation to keep America and her citizens safe and secure," he said.

In recent weeks, the White House gave its blessing to the Senate version, co-sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., extending all three provisions without placing as many restrictions as the House version.

"We believe these measures will promote appropriate standards, oversight, and accountability, especially with respect to how information about United States persons is retained and disseminated, without sacrificing the operational effectiveness and flexibility of the underlying tools need to protect our citizens from terrorism and to facilitate the collection of vital foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in the letter expressing strong support to Leahy and Feinstein.

The government cites the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan man who is a U.S. citizen and found to have trained in al Qaeda camps, as proof that the Patriot Act should be renewed for future interceptions by the FBI. Zazi was arrested in September on charges he was planning an attack on American soil.

As for the abuse of the secret letters issued by the FBI, the Obama administration said it sees room for more oversight. U.S. Inspector General Genn A. Fine said in testimony to the Senate:

"As Congress considers reauthorizing provisions of the Patriot Act, it must ensure through continual and aggressive oversight that the FBI uses these important and intrusive investigative authorities appropriately."

Critics of President Obama accused him of flip-flopping on his position as a candidate when he voted to renew a law last year allowing the use of wiretaps and gave immunity to telecom companies that cooperated under Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, made public in 2005.

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