WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is working on a bill that would renew the Patriot Act and expand government powers in the name of fighting terrorism, letting the FBI subpoena records without permission from a judge or grand jury.
Much of the debate in Congress has concerned possibly limiting some of the powers in the antiterrorism law passed 45 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the measure being written by Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, would give the FBI new power to issue administrative subpoenas, which are not reviewed by a judge or grand jury, according to aides for the GOP majority on the committee who briefed reporters yesterday. The subpoenas would allow the agency to quickly obtain records, electronic data, or other evidence in terrorism investigations.
Under the proposal, recipients could challenge the subpoenas in court and the Bush administration would have to report to Congress twice a year on how it uses this investigatory power, the aides said.
The administration has sought this power for two years, but so far it has been rebuffed by lawmakers. It is far from certain that Congress will give the administration everything it wants this year.
Roberts's planned bill also would make it easier for prosecutors to use special court-approved warrants for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies in criminal cases, the committee aides said.
Eight expiring sections of the law that deal with foreign intelligence investigations would become permanent, they said. So, too, would a provision authorizing wiretapping of suspected terrorists who operate without clear ties to a particular terrorist network.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because Roberts has yet to make public the bill's contents.
Opponents of expanding the Patriot Act said Roberts' proposal would amount to an expansive wish list for the administration.
''While we're fighting to bring provisions . . . back into balance with the Bill of Rights, here we have the intelligence committee moving to give the government more power outside the judicial system to gain access to records of Americans," said former GOP Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, a critic of the law.
Lisa Graves, the American Civil Liberties Union's senior counsel for legislative strategy, said the new subpoena power would ''be a dramatic expansion of secret search powers."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other administration officials have been adamant that the expiring provisions become permanent, with few changes.
They also have pushed for the administrative subpoena power, which they say prosecutors already are using in healthcare fraud and other criminal cases.
Aides said the committee would meet in private to consider the bill because discussions would involve intelligence operations.
Barr said he was distressed that the committee ''would do something like this in secret."
Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, the panel's senior Democrat, has not said publicly whether he would support the entire bill that Roberts was working on or seek changes.