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Senators skeptical of FBI use of Patriot Act surveillance powers

[JURIST] Several leading US Senators expressed concern Sunday over the FBI's use of a USA Patriot Act [PDF text] provision that enables the Federal Bureau of Investigation [official website] to access private phone and financial records. The Sunday follow a report in the Washington Post that the FBI is issuing over 30,000 national security letters [PDF sample text; ACLU backgrounder] yearly under the Patriot Act, more than a hundredfold increase over historic levels. The FBI has used security letters to get access to phone, e-mail, and financial records since the 1970s, but under the Patriot Act, records sought no longer need to be those of someone under suspicion. Instead, the FBI must only show that the records are "relevant" to a terrorist investigation. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) [official website], member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that it seems that the FBI's power under the Patriot Act "is, if not abused, being close to abused." Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) [official website], member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that the government's expanded powers highlight the need to balance national security against individual rights. A Justice Department spokesman, while not confirming the 30,000 number, said the power to use security letters was justified and that the "Department of Justice inspector general in August 2005 found no civil rights violations with respect to the Patriot Act." The Second Circuit is currently considering a challenge [JURIST report] to FBI use of the letters on the basis that they constitute unreasonable searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution. AP has more.

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