December 7, 2005 4:12 PM PST
Patriot Act may be renewed without reforms
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One portion that has drawn scrutiny is section 215, which permits secret court orders to be used to obtain records or "tangible items" from any person or organization if the FBI claims a link to terrorism. The recipient of the secret order is gagged, and disclosing its existence is punished by a prison term. Section 215 is set to expire on Dec. 31.
Another is the portion of the Patriot Act that requires Internet service providers and any other type of communication provider--including telephone companies--to comply with secret "National Security Letters" from the FBI. Those letters can ask for information about subscribers--including home addresses, what telephone calls were made, e-mail subject lines and logs of what Web sites were visited.
Such letters are not new: Before the Patriot Act was enacted, they could be used in investigations of suspected terrorists and spies. But after the change to the law, the FBI needed only to say that a letter may be "relevant" to a terrorist-related investigation. No court approval is required.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Nov. 2 about the constitutionality of National Security Letters--which, under current law, don't even permit the recipient to consult an attorney. That portion of the Patriot Act is not scheduled to expire.
Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the current debate over the Patriot Act is important but ultimately limited because even the proposed modifications are modest. "To some extent it feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Bankston said. "At the end, it's still going to be the Patriot Act. It's going to be a broad enhancement of police power, of law enforcement and investigative powers."
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.
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