WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration mounts a high-profile effort to keep the Patriot Act intact, there's a less visible campaign under way to expand the controversial anti-terrorism law and hand the FBI sweeping new investigative powers.
President Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales head to Columbus, Ohio, today to promote a law they credit as instrumental in keeping America safe from further terrorist attack. They will urge Congress to permanently extend the sections of the law, enacted just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, which expire at year's end.
The selection of Columbus wasn't accidental. Investigators there, using Patriot Act authorities, scored a victory in the fight against terrorism: Arresting and convicting al-Qaida operative Iyman Faris, a truck driver who plotted to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and other U.S. targets.
Even as the White House seeks to counter a movement by some conservatives and liberals to curb some of the Patriot Act's powers, administration allies in the Senate moved this week to add new powers to the 2001 law.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, meeting behind closed doors, on Tuesday approved a bill that would hand FBI agents authority to write their own subpoenas in certain investigations without having to obtain a judge's approval.
The bill also would broaden the FBI's authority to monitor people's mail in terrorism investigations. While the text of the bill remains secret, the committee's leaders have broadly characterized its content.
The Intelligence Committee's action has dismayed activists on the left and right who have united in a bid to place greater checks on some of the government surveillance and investigative powers granted under the Patriot Act.
Instead of achieving its goal of trimming the Patriot Act's sails - as seemed likely just a few months ago - the informal coalition now finds itself on the defensive, fighting to prevent an expansion of the Patriot Act.
Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman who leads the group Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, agreed. "It does, of course, open another front for us to fight," he said. But, he added, "We can fight a multi-front battle the same as the administration can."
The flashpoint over the Intelligence Committee bill centers largely on the issue of granting the FBI administrative subpoena powers - an authority the bureau has unsuccessfully sought for decades.
Critics contend that allowing FBI agents to write their own subpoenas, without having to get a judge's approval, could lead to fishing expeditions through Americans' financial, medical, gun and other records.
"This is taking us from bad to worse," Barr said. "Instead of fixing the worst Patriot Act provisions, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the wish list of the administration: a power grab that rolls back already eroded checks and balances."