Senate and House Plan Patriot Act Hearings for Next Week

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With a number of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the year, both the Senate and House Judiciary committees are expected to begin hearings on the USA Patriot Act next week. The House Judiciary Committee hearings are scheduled to start on Wednesday, April 6, and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearings are expected to commence on Tuesday, April 5.

The news that Congress is starting oversight hearings on the controversial act, which was passed hastily after the attacks on September 11, could be the harbinger of good news for booksellers. "This is the beginning of a legislative process that will hopefully culminate in the sunsetting of Section 215," said ABA COO Oren Teicher.

Teicher noted that this week the final phase of the Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP) -- a nationwide grassroots petition drive calling for an amendment to Section 215 of the USA Patriot to ensure the privacy of bookstore and library records -- was launched. The centerpiece of CRP, which is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center, is a petition drive that is being conducted in bookstores, libraries, and via the Web at (For more on this topic, click here.)

In announcing the committee's oversight plans for reauthorization of the Patriot Act House Judiciary Committee (HJC) Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) said, "Consideration of reauthorization of the Patriot Act represents one of the most important tasks Congress Faces this year. Lawmakers will focus a keen eye on all aspects of this law and how it has been implemented. What improvements, if any, are needed? Does the Patriot Act deserve to be made permanent? These are a few of the questions that will be asked."

Sensenbrenner also noted that the HJC "plans an ambitious hearing and oversight schedule" in April and May. On Wednesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller will testify before the full committee and there will be eight hearings -- roughly two hearings per week -- at the subcommittee level. They will continue through April and into May on the 16 sunsetting Patriot Act provisions. "I anticipate the Deputy Attorney General testifying before the full committee soon after the subcommittee hearings are completed," Sensenbrenner added.

Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) said, "There are few issues that are more important to [the HJC] and the American people than protecting our citizen's precious civil rights and civil liberties while continuing the battle against terror. I look forward to a full and fair review of these issues in the coming weeks and months. I hope the Department will be forthcoming in how their powers have been used and will work with us to draft any further legislation in a bipartisan manner."

Some of the areas that will be addressed in the HJC hearings are information sharing, access to business records, material support of terrorism, and wiretap authorities. Some documents from HJC's oversight of the Patriot Act can be viewed at the committee's website.

As of press time, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary had not published a hearing schedule.

In related news, on Tuesday, April 5, Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Larry Craig (R-ID) plan on introducing the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act (SAFE) of 2005 in the Senate. The legislation would amend parts of the USA Patriot Act, including Section 215, which gives law enforcement officials broad authority to demand that libraries or bookstores turn over books, records, papers, and documents. --David Grogan