But today's legislation would also place some new restrictions on the government, and it would give more power to the courts. Here are some key elements in the legislation approved by the committee:
1) The government would have to provide a court with a statement of facts
and circumstances indicating
a person sought-after information is relevant to an investigation
before it can either a) trace incoming and outgoing phone numbers on a phone, or b) subpoena
physical things, like documents and records, related to a person via a
National Security Letter under Section 215
2) National Security Letter authority will now return to pre-PATRIOT Act standards unless Congress acts before Dec. 31, 2013
3) The government would have to disclose not only how many National Security Letters have been prescribed, but what types of people they target
4) Recipients of National Security Letters would be notified that they can challenge gag orders--which are administered if authorities with security clearance deem it necessary--prohibiting them from telling anyone about the National Security Letter they've received. They could challenge such orders in Federal District Court at any time and the government then would have to seek an order of compliance with the gag order from the court, which could set the terms of the gag order as appropriate to the case.
5) The government would have to conduct new audits of its use of phone traces and National Security Letters
6) The government would have to implement court-approved "minimization procedures" for phone-trace data and documents and records that were subpoenaed, to prevent the dissemination of any non-public information it obtained with regard to non-consenting individuals.
The ACLU put out a statement today opposing the bill as it was reported out of committee: "We are disappointed that further changes were not made to ensure Americans' civil liberties would be adequately protected by this Patriot Act legislation. This truly was a missed opportunity for the Senate Judiciary Committee to right the wrongs of the Patriot Act and stand up for Americans' Fourth Amendment rights," Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said.
Given the opposition from both the ACLU and three Democrats on the committee--even as two Republicans supported the bill--extending these parts of the PATRIOT Act could draw some significant debate both from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans as the bill moves toward the Senate floor.
UPDATE: This post was corrected to reflect that 1) National Security Letter authorities aren't expiring (Section 215 is something different entirely), and 2) statements of facts and circumstances would only be required to show that sought-after information (not the people it pertains to--e.g. the guy who's getting wiretapped) would be relevant to a case.