The Bush administration issued a veto threat Thursday against legislation introduced in Congress that would scale back key parts of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.
In a letter to Senate leaders, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the changes contemplated by the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, or SAFE, would "undermine our ongoing campaign to detect and prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks."
If the bill reaches President Bush's desk in its current form, Ashcroft said, "the president's senior advisers will recommend that it be vetoed."
The threat comes a week after Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address, called for Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act before it expires in 2005. The law, passed shortly after the 2001 terror attacks, expanded the government's wiretap and other surveillance authority, removed barriers between FBI and CIA information-sharing, and provided more tools for terror finance investigations.
Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers, including Republicans, believe the act goes too far and endangers the privacy of innocent citizens.
The SAFE Act, which has not yet had a hearing in either the House or Senate, was introduced last fall by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and other lawmakers of both parties.
In a statement at the time, Craig said the bill was a "measured" response to concerns that the Patriot Act threatens civil liberties and privacy rights.
"This legislation intends to ensure the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation's fight against terrorism, without in any way impeding that fight," Craig said.
The bill would modify so-called "sneak and peek" search warrants that allow for delayed notification of the target of the search. In addition, warrants for roving wiretaps used to monitor a suspect's multiple cell phones would have to make sure the target was present at the site being wiretapped before information could be collected.
The legislation also would reinstate standards in place prior to passage of the Patriot Act regarding library records by forcing the FBI to show it has reason to believe the person involved is a suspected terrorist or spy. In addition, the bill would impose expiration dates on nationwide search warrants and other Patriot Act provisions, providing for congressional review.
Ashcroft, who last year embarked on a national speaking tour in support of the Patriot Act, said the legislation would "make it even more difficult to mount an effective anti-terror campaign than it was before the Patriot Act was passed."