Four Democratic senators won the promise Thursday of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing into what they say is a secret and expansive Justice Department interpretation of the information collection the Patriot Act allows.
The criticism by Intelligence Committee members Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado came as Congress moved to extend the government's Patriot Act powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps.
Wyden said there is a growing gap between what the law says and what the senators call a classified interpretation of the law by the Justice Department.
Udall said his constituents "would be alarmed if they knew" how the Patriot Act was being carried out.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon complained that "the government won't even tell the American people how it interprets these provisions, or whether it sees any limits on its authority at all." Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said almost 10 years after the Patriot Act's passage, "we still haven't had the debate that we need to have on this piece of legislation." All four senators voted against the Patriot Act extension. Merkley and Tom Udall are not on the intelligence committee.
The four senators proposed an amendment that would require Attorney General Eric Holder to file a public report on the legal rationale for intelligence collection activities. Wyden vowed to offer the amendment in the fall "if we don't get results" through the hearing process.
The wording of the amendment seemed to suggest that Wyden and Udall have been concerned about the issue since Feb. 2, when the intelligence committees on the Hill received a secret report from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence. The amendment says that the attorney general must publish in the Federal Register the legal basis for the intelligence collection activities described in the Feb. 2 report.
On the Senate floor, Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she intends to call a hearing with intelligence agencies, senior policymakers and the Justice Department after the Memorial Day break and to make changes "if changes are needed." The hearing will be closed to the public.
At the Justice Department, spokesman Dean Boyd said the department has "gone to great lengths to ensure that the public's elected representatives are fully informed of the ways in which we interpret and use these authorities."
Boyd said the provisions of the Patriot Act are subject to extensive oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, by Congress and the executive branch.
"We have made available detailed information on the use of these Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities to members of the Senate and the House and we have participated in numerous hearings, both classified and open, with relevant congressional committees," Boyd added.