WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has decided to endorse "technical modifications" in a much-debated section of the USA Patriot Act, a Justice official said Monday.
The modifications include new language to ensure that individuals who hold records sought in terror investigations have the right to consult with lawyers, the official said.
The proposed revisions, which U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales will outline at a Senate hearing this morning, would affect Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that Congress enacted in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gonzales is also expected to propose a tightening of the legal standard in Section 215 to make it clear that prosecutors must prove to a judge that the documents requested are "relevant" to a terror investigation before making the request.
Section 215, which makes it easier for the government to obtain business and other records in terror investigations, has drawn widespread criticism. Librarians have expressed concern that the provision was being used to probe the reading habits of ordinary citizens.
The section includes a gag order that subjects recipients of document requests to possible criminal prosecution if they disclose the request to others. Critics of the legislation have said the provision could be construed as prohibiting communication with lawyers.
The Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the proposed changes were "consistent with past department positions." He said Gonzales believed that "providing specificity and reducing ambiguity will help strengthen the law."
Congress this week is launching what is expected to be a months-long review of the Patriot Act. Section 215 is one of more than a dozen that will expire at the end of the year unless Congress renews them.
Unlike his predecessor, John Ashcroft, Gonzales has indicated that he is willing to engage critics of the law and consider changing the act, which has been assailed for giving the government too much power and sacrificing civil liberties.
Critics of the act said late Monday that they considered the proposed changes in the wording of Section 215 to be symbolic and that the revisions had already been implemented in practice. Critics want the act's scope be limited to include only specific identified targets of terror investigations, instead of the wide net now cast in such probes.