Patriot defined

April 28, 2005

CONGRESS is still in the early stages of its marathon hearings on the USA Patriot Act, but some of the promised thoughtful debate already has started. After more than a year of extremist campaign rhetoric, such clear talk is refreshing and necessary.

Tuesday's hearing targeted sections that strengthen the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including lengthening wiretap authorization from 90 days to a year before judicial reapproval is needed, and extending "phone number-only" wiretap rules - those that permit the identification only of telephone calls dialed and received - to cover Internet communication.

Both sections are problematic. The administration hasn't offered proof that quadrupling the time between judicial reviews of wiretaps has helped solve any case, while it clearly weakens a necessary check on the system. Tapping Internet activity tells one much more than a simple phone number: Web addresses include information on their content, and e-mail addresses usually point to a specific person. Looking at the content of voice or electronic messages should remain legal only through using a search warrant.

Tapping Internet connections for valid cause may be appropriate, but if it is renewed, the section should be amended to define exactly what counts as content in Internet communications, and ensure that anyone who wishes to peek at content - be it a conversation via voice or text message - prove to a judge that he needs to.

Today's hearing covers sections on such electronic evidence as voicemail, wire communications and e-mail, and the debate over what is content and what is merely transmission information will continue.

If Congress does decide to continue allowing these incursions, it should include another expiration date. It's understandable that the beefy Patriot Act would pass in haste after the country was attacked on 9/11, but right that it be reconsidered at leisure, especially as Americans better understand how provisions are used and how tight the cloak of secrecy really is.

Certainly, there is danger in the world, but there also is little incentive to trust an administration that declares secret more of its own work than any previous administration - and shares so little data on how it is applying this disturbingly invasive act.

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