The business groups complained to Congress on Wednesday that the Patriot Act makes it too easy for the government to get confidential business records. That put them at odds with one of President Bush's top priorities: the unfettered extension of the law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the first organized criticism of the act from the business sector, these groups endorsed amendments that would require investigators to say how the information they seek is linked to individual suspected terrorists or spies, and would allow businesses to challenge the requests in courts and to speak publicly about those requests.
Their views could make a difference as Congress heads toward a vote on whether to extend some controversial provisions of the act that expire at the end of the year.
"Confidential files, records about our customers or our employees, as well as our trade secrets and other proprietary information, can too easily be obtained and disseminated under investigative powers expanded by the Patriot Act," six business groups wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "These new powers lack sufficient checks and balances."
Some of the most powerful lobbying groups in town signed the letter. It endorsed amendments to restrict the record-gathering powers of federal agents, including some changes already in the Senate's, but not the House's version of the Patriot Act extension bill and one change that is in neither bill.
Among the signers were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses; the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents large and small industrialists in every state; and the National Association of Realtors, with 1 million members. All three are regulars on Fortune magazine's list of nation's 25 most powerful lobbying outfits.
The restrictions sought by the business groups also have been advocated by a coalition of civil liberties groups and conservative political organizations. The chairman of one such coalition, former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, commended the signers: "Business leaders recognize that the private records and sensitive proprietary information of all businesses, from doctor's offices to Realtors to manufacturers to car dealerships, are at risk under the current Patriot Act."
Bush asked Congress to make permanent the expiring provisions of the existing act. But the Senate bill only extends the most controversial provisions another four years; the House bill, another 10 years.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said the administration prefers the House bill and objects to some of these new restrictions in the Senate version. The differences are to be resolved in a Senate-House conference.
Specifically, the groups endorsed a Senate provision that would require federal agents to provide to a court that sits in secret to issue Patriot Act warrants a statement of facts showing "some linkage between the records sought and an individual suspected of being a terrorist or spy."
Currently the government merely has to certify it is conducting an authorized investigation without providing any facts connecting the records to actual suspects.
Going beyond even the Senate bill, the groups said that provision requiring a factual linkage also should be added to a separate Patriot Act section which allows agents to gather business records of financial institutions by issuing a "national security letter" without any court approval.
Finally, they endorsed Senate amendments that would provide the first "meaningful right to challenge the (Patriot Act court) order when the order is unreasonable, oppressive or seeks privileged information" and the right to challenge the existing permanent gag order covering document demands made under the act.
While calling the Patriot Act "an important tool that has helped keep our country safe," the groups expressed concern over "the expensive and time-consuming burden that compliance with document requests from the government places upon affected businesses."
Other signers were The Financial Services Roundtable and Business Civil Liberties Inc.