The Justice Department is preparing to attempt to expand the 2001 Patriot Act to increase surveillance within the United States while restricting access to information and limiting judicial review, a nonprofit government watchdog group asserted Friday.
The Center for Public Integrity said it obtained a copy of the draft legislation from a government source. The document, labeled "confidential," was posted on the organization's Internet site along with an analysis.
Justice Department officials said no final decisions have made on any such legislation, and it could change substantially before it is completed. Spokeswoman Barbara Comstock acknowledged the department is "continually considering anti-terrorism measures and would be derelict if we were not doing so."
"The department's deliberations are always undertaken with the strongest commitment to our Constitution and civil liberties," she added.
CBS News legal consultant Andrew Cohen said, "These proposed measures are a long way from being law and its likely there will be a detailed and specific debate in Congress this time around about whether they are necessary and advisable and even constitutional. Remember, when the USA Patriot Act was passed just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and some legislators hadn't even read it, much less really understood it. But I think the blank-check period for this type of legislation is over."
"The Administration ultimately may decide that it doesn't want to push these measures at this time. But if the Justice Department does make a push it will have to convince lawmakers that the new powers are necessary and that will mean conceding that the vast new powers in the USA Patriot Act weren't enough. That might be a tough sell to a Congress that gave the Administration almost everything it wanted the last time around."
The original Patriot Act gave the government broad new anti-terrorism powers to use wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping, searches and the authority to obtain a wide range of other information in it's investigations. It also broke down the traditional wall between FBI investigators and intelligence agents.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the draft expansion of the Patriot Act would be called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003.
Among other things, it would prohibit disclosure of information regarding people detained as terrorist suspects and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from distributing "worst-case scenario" information to the public about a nearby private company's use of chemicals.
In addition, the measure would create a DNA database of "suspected terrorists;" force suspects to prove why they should be released on bail, rather than have the prosecution prove why they should be held; and allow the deportation of U.S. citizens who become members of or help terrorist groups.
"It really is a broadening and a deepening of the government's powers," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity.
Congressional aides said they had not been consulted by the Justice Department on the development of such a bill and department officials say it has not been transmitted to Capitol Hill. However, several aids have said they considered it likely that the Bush administration would propose some changes this year.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the legislation "turns the Bill of Rights completely on its head."
"This draft bill constitutes yet another egregious blow to our citizens' civil liberties," Conyers said. "Among other things, the Bush administration now wants to imprison suspects before they are tried and create DNA databases of lawful residents who have committed no crime."