WASHINGTON — Defying the Obama administration, the House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to remove from the USA Patriot Act a tool for tracking non-U.S. citizens in anti-terrorism investigations.
The committee, dominated by Democratic liberals, also voted to amend the anti-terrorism law to curb the government's surveillance and seizure powers.
The bill went to the full House on a 16-10 vote along party lines, with Republicans casting all the votes in opposition. GOP lawmakers said the legislation would hinder law enforcement and intelligence agencies in fighting terrorism.
The legislation would allow the Patriot Act's never-used "lone wolf" section to expire at the end of the year. The provision permits the government to spy on non-Americans even when they're not linked to a recognized terrorist group.
The Justice Department has asked that the "lone wolf" authority be continued, even though it hasn't been needed yet. Patriot Act revisions before the Senate would retain the tool, but the House Democrats said normal criminal investigative tools could be used instead.
Three sections of the Patriot Act expire at year's end, giving lawmakers the opportunity to amend the law.
Congressional liberals believe the act tilts too far in favor of law enforcement and intelligence agencies while failing to protect Americans' privacy against government snooping and seizures.
The bill before the Senate, approved by that chamber's Judiciary Committee, would make it easier than the House legislation for authorities to obtain tangible items, including business and library records, and conduct wiretaps.
In addition to eliminating the "lone wolf" language the House bill would place restrictions on national security letters, which are FBI demands for information that do not need a judge's approval.
Liberal lawmakers argue that restrictions on court-ordered seizures mean little unless there are curbs on the FBI's authority to issue the letters.
Under the bill, before issuing national security letters the FBI would be required to demonstrate that the information requested is connected to a foreign power or its agent.
The bill also would force the government to justify to a judge the need for a gag order, which prevents the recipient of the letter from disclosing it.
The Justice Department inspector general has reported that the FBI in the past improperly collected and retained improper information from the security letters.
The House bill's curtailment of some government authority is certain to upset law enforcement and intelligence officials, but sponsors only need a simple majority to pass it.
The 100-member Senate needs 60 votes to advance a bill, and the compromise bill before that chamber – crafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others – was designed to overcome that hurdle.
A wildcard in the debate is the Obama administration's Justice Department. So far, the department's only public stance been to seek continuation of the three expiring sections. Several lawmakers demanded that the Obama administration provide it's position on the changes.
The House bill's also would:
_Require the government, in requesting a roving wiretap, to demonstrate to a judge that the target is a single person. This would avoid a fishing expedition that could ensnare innocent people, supporters say.
_Require the government to produce more evidence to a court than currently needed, in order to obtain records from businesses, libraries and booksellers. An even higher standard would be needed for obtaining library and bookstore records.
_Set a December 2013 expiration for the roving wiretap and records seizure sections. Congress would have to revisit the legislation to keep those sections in force.