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Patriot Act hearings sought by Democrats

WASHINGTON -- Ten House Democrats, voicing concern that the government strike the right balance between individual rights and collective security, have asked for sweeping congressional hearings on how the Justice Department has made use of the Patriot Act and other antiterrorism powers.

In a letter to be delivered today, Representatives Martin T. Meehan of Lowell and William D. Delahunt of Quincy, along with eight other Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, ask chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, to hold hearings next year "on the war on terrorism's impact on civil liberties."

"Critics representing a wide range of ideological perspectives have raised serious questions about how the Justice Department has used its legal tools, including the Patriot Act, to investigate individuals with no apparent link to terrorism," the lawmakers write. "At a time when the department is seeking additional powers in the name of fighting terrorism, we think the committee should review the impact of existing investigative authority and tactics on

innocent individuals and important political freedoms, including the rights to privacy and free speech." As chairman, Sensenbrenner has the sole authority to schedule hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the Justice Department. It is uncertain whether a Republican would call attention to a politically charged issue in a presidential election year, when Democrats plan to target the Bush administration's record on civil liberties.

A committee spokesman said Sensenbrenner was out of town and unavailable for comment. Meehan, however, said that informal talks between staff members have given him some optimism that the chairman may be open to calling some form of an oversight hearing.

"There are a lot of Republican members who, I think, want to do something with this," he said.

But Meehan conceded that he had not found one willing to co-sign his letter.

Charlie Savage may be reached at

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