At House Hearing, Gonzales Says Section 215 Needs Clarification

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On Wednesday, April 6, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) at an oversight hearing on the USA Patriot Act to answer questions from House Representatives about the 16 provisions of the Act set to sunset at the end of the year. Gonzales, testifying a day after appearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, reiterated his stance that the Department would consider amending Section 215 to clarify the law.

"The department has already stated in litigation that the recipient of a 215 order may consult with an attorney," Gonzales told the committee. "The Department has also stated that a government may seek and a court may require that it only [request] records that are relevant to a national security investigation....

"The text in 215 is not as clear as it could be in these respects and the Department is willing to support amendments to Section 215 to clarify these points."

In addition, Gonzales announced in his opening statement to the committee that as of March 30, 2005, the Justice Department had requested an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act 35 times, though these orders did not involve libraries or bookstores. Moreover, while the attorney general reiterated his stance that the Department would consider "clarifying" Section 215, the Department was against letting the provision expire, and he noted later during testimony that he believed usage of 215 "will increase" in the future.

ABA CEO Oren Teicher noted, "The good news is that this week's hearings before the House and Senate Judiciary committees on the Patriot Act showed that we are making some modest progress, and the myriad efforts of so many booksellers who are collecting petition signatures is having an effect.

"The Attorney General did soften the administration's previously stated positions and acknowledged that some amendments to Section 215 might be in order -- but we are going to need to keep reminding Congress why protecting the privacy of bookstore customers is so critical."

Much as it was in the Senate hearing a day earlier, in general, the day's HJC hearing alternated between inquiries and statements from House members in favor of renewing the Patriot Act and those seeking amendments or an extension of the sunset to a later date. While the Attorney General did not come under heavy criticism from any committee member, some on the committee had harsh criticism for the Justice Department and the Bush administration.

In response to the Attorney General's opening statement, Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said, "I am gratified that the Justice Department never sought bookstore, medical, or gun sale records under 215.... I salute your amendments to 215 to clarify the process under which the Justice Department utilizes this section."

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, noted, "Those who oppose passage of any part of the Patriot Act, want changes, question its utility, [or] are concerned about the government's demand for new and unnecessary powers, do not [do so] because they have any sympathy with terrorists or those that support them, and I resent on the part of all Americans anyone in government that takes that point of view."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said, "I don't think any of us had in mind libraries and bookstores when that provision [Section 215] was put together -- and you say it's never been used with a library or bookstore." She asked Gonzales whether the Justice Department would therefore support an amendment to Section 215 to exempt personal, identifiable information obtained from libraries and bookstores. In response, the Attorney General noted that the Justice Department had no interest in the library habits of American citizens.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the Patriot Act and the Justice Department came from Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). "[The Department] says trust us, we're going to use it [the Patriot Act] wisely, we're going to use it with discretion, we're going to use it with restraint," he said. "The cloak of secrecy that has dominated the discussion over the last four years makes those of us who were happy about a sunset clause [in the Patriot Act] completely unwilling to say extend it, or further, to eliminate the sunset altogether. In order for us to agree, there has to be more information [forthcoming from the Justice Department]."

Weiner added: "We should not have to wait to the day of a Senate hearing to find out that there were 35 instances where Section 215 was used."

To read BTW's report on Tuesday's hearings on the Patriot Act before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, go to --David Grogan