The Justice Department has objected to a surprising House vote against covert “sneak and peek” searches in criminal investigations, a move sponsors said reflected civil liberties concerns raised by the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act, the Associated Press reports. By a bipartisan 309-118 vote, the House struck the first serious blow against the law, passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Patriot Act strengthened federal surveillance and law-enforcement powers, removed a barrier to the CIA and other intelligence agencies sharing information with law-enforcement officials and added provisions aimed at disrupting terrorism financing. Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-Idaho) said the law has “given unbridled authority to the federal law-enforcement agencies.”
But FBI director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that, “Our success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without several of the provisions of that act.”
The new measure sponsored by Otter would prevent federal dollars from being spent to implement warrants that delay notification of a covert search. The amendment, approved Tuesday night in committee, was attached to the annual spending bill for the Justice Department and other agencies. It passed the House on Wednesday. The bill now moves on to the Senate.
The USA Patriot Act established uniform national standards for what are sometimes known as “black bag” or “sneak and peek” searches. As of April 1, the Justice Department had obtained such warrants under the USA Patriot Act 47 times for searches and 14 times for property seizures. Extensions ranging from one day to 90 days have been obtained 248 times.