WASHINGTON — Gun rights groups and liberals came together Tuesday to back reforms to the Patriot Act sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar and three other senators.
The Security and Freedom Enhancement Act, or SAFE Act, would cut back some of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act, which was passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to give federal agents greater surveillance powers.
“I come to this from the perspective of law enforcement,” said Salazar, a Democrat and Colorado’s former attorney general. He said the government must balance the needs to fight terrorists and preserve civil liberties.
“I believe the SAFE Act achieves that balance,” he said.
The SAFE Act’s changes include:
•Putting a seven-day time limit on the authority for “sneak-and-peek” searches. The Patriot Act lets the government keep searches secret for weeks or months.
•Forbidding wiretaps without specifying the person or phone line to be tapped.
•Limiting access to personal documents, including library records, without letting suspects challenge the government in court.
•Narrowing the definition of a “terrorist” group. Right now, anti-abortion protesters and other groups fear they could be branded as terrorists.
Salazar stood with senators Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., at a Capitol Hill news conference to promote their bill, which will be introduced today in both houses of Congress. Representatives from a broad spectrum of groups stood with them, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Gun Owners of America, the Libertarian Party and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Former Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Denver, represented the Association of American Publishers.
“You have a very powerful coalition of groups here that includes gun owners, but also includes the ACLU,” Salazar said.
Tuesday morning, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a Senate hearing that he is open to changing the Patriot Act. It was the first time the Bush administration had signaled a willingness to compromise, Feingold said.
The Justice Department said Tuesday it had used the Patriot Act’s authority to secretly gather information on people 35 times. It has never used the Patriot Act to get bookstore or library records, medical records or gun sale records, according to a news release.
Salazar said Gonzales told him before the Senate confirmed him as attorney general that he would take a fresh look at the Patriot Act. Salazar backed Gonzales when many Democrats attacked him over prisoner abuse scandals that have plagued the Bush administration.