Bill would renew parts of Patriot Act

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday that would renew portions of the USA Patriot Act in an effort to address administration concerns about protecting terrorism investigations.

But several Democrats and civil liberties advocates said the legislation would do little to strengthen privacy protections. And some Republicans said the bill, despite amendments worked out with the administration, would still unduly burden investigators.

By a vote of 11 to 8, the committee sent to the Senate floor a measure that would extend until 2013 three surveillance provisions set to expire Dec. 31. They would allow investigators to use roving wiretaps to monitor suspects who may switch cell phone numbers, to obtain business records of national security targets, and to track "lone wolves" who may be acting alone on behalf of foreign powers or terrorist groups.

The bill would also slightly tighten the legal standard for the FBI's issuing of administration subpoenas known as national security letters (NSLs), which allow the bureau to obtain phone, credit and other personal records, and which the Justice Department inspector general has said are subject to "widespread and serious misuse."

The bill would require the FBI to provide "specific facts" to show why NSL records are relevant to a terrorism investigation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., won approval for a package of amendments, intended to meet the concerns of intelligence officials and the administration, that would limit the scope of newly crafted privacy protections for library records, preserve the government's ability to maintain secrecy concerning NSLs in sensitive investigations, and keep current law in place by not imposing unprecedented minimization requirements on information.