WASHINGTON -- When Congress enacted the USA Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 attacks, it put the Justice Department on a short leash, mandating that many of the new powers in the act would last four years unless renewed.
Now, as lawmakers are debating a Bush administration proposal to make those provisions permanent, Republicans and Democrats alike are wondering whether they should retain the so-called sunset provisions to ensure a degree of Justice Department accountability.
The issue is apt to become an important part of the debate as Congress determines whether to extend the law, which gave the government new power to investigate and prosecute terrorists.
It surfaced Wednesday as Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales testified before the House Judiciary Committee for a second day about the Patriot Act.
The hearing was the first of a series that the House panel had scheduled to decide whether 16 provisions of the law should be renewed this year.
Gonzales said that because the department had achieved a "strong record of success" in using the provisions to fight terrorism, they should be made permanent.
He argued that removing the sunset provisions would not limit Congress' scrutiny of the department.
But many members of Congress contend that their ability to oversee the agency has been thwarted because the Justice Department — at least under former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft — has been loath to reveal details of how the law has been used.
So the issue raises a larger question: Can the Justice Department — even under a new and more accessible attorney general — be trusted?
Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.(R-Wis.) was among the most ardent supporters of the sunset provisions when the original law was passed.
A spokesman said Sensenbrenner was keeping an open mind on the issue. But the chairman's first question to Gonzales on Wednesday was whether such provisions were necessary.
Some other Republicans on the committee see the time limits as a valuable safeguard.
Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona contends that "law enforcement officials would be more circumspect if they were faced with the prospect of having to come to Congress every couple of years and justify the provisions," a spokesman said.
Gregory Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union legislative office, said: "There seems to be strong bipartisan support for keeping sunsets in the Patriot Act, even after Congress decides what parts will be reauthorized and what parts will be amended."
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Gonzales released declassified information showing how often the department had used powerful new tools under the law.
These included provisions covering the collection of a wide range of business records, and search warrants that allowed the government to delay notifying the target of a warrant until sometimes weeks or months after the search had taken place, a practice critics called "sneak and peek."
The department also gave Congress a 69-page analysis of how the expiring provisions had operated.
"I think it's a strong record of success," Gonzales said.
"I think that the act has been effective. I think that the department has acted responsibly."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times