Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican, Maine) said many people see the law as a restriction on civil liberties in part because of what she called a misunderstanding of its provisions. She said the Justice Department should be more open about how it is using the law to protect Americans.
"Obviously, certain activities have to remain secret, we understand that," Snowe said. "But on the other hand, I think we have to go the extra mile whenever we can to convey to the public that this [Patriot Act] is being used in the most appropriate way and we're not encroaching on people's civil liberties."
Snowe and other committee members told Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Director Robert S. Mueller, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Porter J. Goss that the public is uncomfortable with certain aspects of the law.
They include the right of the government to wiretap phone conversations and to obtain the library, credit-card, and health records of people not under criminal investigation.
Still, none of the senators said they would vote against renewing the law's controversial provisions or making them permanent.
Indeed, much of yesterday's hearing focused on ways the Patriot Act is reportedly helping to improve coordination between the FBI, which handles domestic intelligence gathering, and the CIA, which is focused on overseas spying.
In March, a presidential commission reported that the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States could in part be blamed on poor coordination between those agencies.
But Mueller told the panel that the Patriot Act and new interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 -- known as FISA -- have improved cooperation between the FBI and CIA.
"It was well pointed out there [in the March report] the constraints under which we were operating prior to 11 September that...cut off the flow of information between the agencies whose responsibility is protecting security within the United States and those agencies whose responsibility is protecting the security of the United States outside the United States," Mueller said. "And the Patriot Act and the interpretation of the FISA statute have broken down that wall."
CIA Director Goss, meanwhile, said the Patriot Act is careful not to allow wholesale intelligence sharing. He said interagency sharing is predicated on what he called a "need-to-know" basis to ensure that the information does not get into the wrong hands.
But Goss stressed that the cooperation is just beginning, and full sharing will take time.
"The direction was for more sharing and more compatibility in systems so that the goals that we both have ascribed to -- about getting information where you need it, when you need it, to the right analyst -- would be available," Goss said. "I cannot assure you that's going to be accomplished immediately."
This drew a complaint from Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon). Wyden applauded tearing down the "walls" between agencies but criticized the new, restrictive rules about sharing information.
"The pre-9/11 [pre-11 September 2001] set of walls has been replaced with a new set of walls preventing information sharing," Wyden said. "And for the life of me [indeed], when we have this limited number of people -- all with the need to know, all who are trained to handle sensitive data -- it just seems putting them through this kind of water-torture exercise to share information is pointless and doesn't serve any of the interests that you three have talked about."
As for criticism about lack of information about the way the Patriot Act is being used, Attorney General Gonzalez said the Justice Department would try to be more forthcoming about how it is enforcing the controversial law.
But Goss said the U.S. government should be careful about how frankly it publicizes its efforts to fight criminals and militants.
Goss, recently appointed by President Bush, said it would be admirable to reassure Americans how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are protecting them. But he said such candor could help terrorists determine how circumvent these measures.