Senator Pat Leahy promises hearings into White House request for expanded surveillance powers

News that the White House has asked for a "clarification" in current law which would make it easier for the FBI to obtain private email and web browsing records without a court order has run into strong opposition from the New York Times.

In a Thursday editorial, the paper firmly opposed the expanded use of warrantless "national security letters," which it points out have been widely used -- and often abused -- by both the FBI and the Pentagon.

"President Obama campaigned for office on an explicit promise to rein in these abuses," the Times notes, citing a 2008 position paper which promised that "as president, Barack Obama would revisit the Patriot Act to ensure that there is real and robust oversight of tools like National Security Letters, sneak-and-peek searches, and the use of the material witness provision."

"But instead of implementing reasonable civil liberties protections, like taking requests for e-mail surveillance before a judge," the editorial concludes, "the administration is proposing changes to the law that would allow huge numbers of new electronic communications to be examined with no judicial oversight. Democrats in Congress can remind Mr. Obama of his campaign promises by refusing this request."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has already promised to hold hearings on the issue. In a statement released on Thursday, he writes that "the administration’s proposal to change ECPA to cover electronic communication transaction records raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns."

"While the government should have the tools that it needs to keep us safe, American citizens should also have protections against improper intrusions into their private electronic communications and online transactions," Leahy's statement continues. "We must also address past government abuses of these authorities. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings this fall to study these and other important issues."