WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., says that in his new role as chairman of a key terrorism and homeland security panel, he will be keeping a weather eye on the way the Obama administration is using the legal authorities granted it by Congress.
In addition to oversight of government eavesdropping and other counter-terrorism programs, Cardin said his agenda would cover plans for the closure of the U.S. military's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the possible renewal of some authorities granted by the Patriot Act, which are due to sunset during this Congress.
Cardin told United Press International he will be checking to see that the administration is using new surveillance authorities passed last year by Congress "appropriately and consistent with congressional intent."
"We need to ensure that the law is adequate to protect us from terrorism and to protect our civil liberties," said Cardin, who assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security last week.
In July 2008 Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1974 law governing wiretapping by the nation's spy agencies, after The New York Times revealed that a secret Bush administration counter-terrorism program had authorized warrantless electronic surveillance -- outside of FISA -- of Americans' foreign communications, including phone calls and e-mails.
Cardin said that oversight of the law -- which governs some of the most sensitive and highly secret eavesdropping capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies -- would be "a challenge."
"We will need to have some briefings (for staff and members), some in a classified setting, to go over how they will want to use the authorities we gave them," he said. "There are some sensitive issues," he said, but he added the subcommittee "needs to understand the legal basis for these (surveillance) programs" to do its job.
Some of the FISA amendments are due to expire after four years, but Cardin said he wanted to "start having discussions" about them in plenty of time. "What I want to do … is get up to speed as to how these powers are being used immediately," he said. "There may be some fine-tuning needed. … We may need to add authorities, we may need to add protections."
"The sunsets are not for some years, but I do not want to wait until six months before they expire to have those debates."
In addition, Cardin said, he wanted to begin an early debate about some sections of the suite of counter-terrorism laws called the USA Patriot Act. The law, hurriedly passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, included sweeping new investigative powers for federal authorities.
Several provisions of the original act were set to expire at the end of 2005. In March 2006 Congress re-authorized the act after nearly nine months of debate and after the sunset provisions were temporarily extended twice to give lawmakers more time.
The 2006 reauthorization included new sunset provisions. Government authority to conduct "roving wiretaps" of targets with multiple phones or Internet access points, and to seize certain categories of business records, are now set to expire Dec. 31, 2009.
Cardin said he planned to be "very solicitous of the administration as to whether they have the legal tools they need" to fight terrorism. "I really do hope there'll be a cordial relationship" with the new president and his team, he added.
"I believe President Obama will be very aggressive in going after those who want to do us harm," but he would do so "consistent with our values and with the Constitution."
The subcommittee's job, he explained, was to ensure the administration was "striking the right balance, not just in the laws but in the way they're implemented."
In addition, he promised to conduct oversight of the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and of U.S. detention policy in general -- "not just in Guantanamo but elsewhere," he said, in a reference to detainees held in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Again, he stressed the need to strike a balance.
"We understand we're at war," he said. "There are responsibilities we have in regard to those who would do us harm ... but the president has said the detainees have basic rights, certainly under the Geneva Conventions."
Cardin took over the Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. -- who chairs the Intelligence Committee and an appropriations subcommittee and is barred by Senate rules from holding a third gavel -- in a shake-up of the Judiciary Committee that saw the controversial abolition of its panel on human rights.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., created the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law in 2007 after Democrats won back control of the Senate in the 2006 election. The subcommittee was a favorite of human-rights lobbyists, and held hearings on issues including human trafficking, genocide and environmental policies. Under the chairmanship of Richard Durbin, D-Ill., it initiated several new laws, including the Genocide Accountability Act -- which made it a crime subject to prosecution under U.S. law to commit genocide anywhere in the world -- and similar acts covering the recruitment of child soldiers and human trafficking.
"With the change of administrations, and the transition to this new Congress, we are not continuing this subcommittee," said Leahy last week, announcing the change. "No one should confuse that with a lack of commitment to the human-rights agenda. We will remain active and attentive on these issues," he said, adding that he expected the full committee to hold hearings.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who was the ranking GOP member of the subcommittee, said he was "extraordinarily disappointed" by the decision to eliminate it. "I fear some of the things we could do on that subcommittee will not be accomplished," he said.