A controversial secret provision of the Patriot Act is not as vital to national security as the government claims, two Democratic senators said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

When the Senate was preparing to renew the Patriot Act in May, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-Colo., vociferously warned that a provision in the bill would give the government broad new powers with a high potential for abuse. The provision allows the government to seize any tangible things relevant to an ongoing investigation without presenting evidence.

The details of how the government interprets the provision are confidential, but Wyden and Udall have insisted that Americans would be horrified if they knew the full scope of surveillance and data gathering that occurs under the auspices of the Patriot Act. The Justice Department has said that releasing information about the program would compromise intelligence gathering and has tried to shut down Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the letter, Wyden and Udall reiterated their concerns about hiding the nature of the program from the American public, urging a balance between national security and government transparency.

As we see it, there is now a signicant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows, Wyden and Udall wrote. This is a problem, because it's impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn't know what its government thinks the law says.

The senators have made that argument before. But they took it a step further, asserting that the government has exaggerated the program's effectiveness in order to keep it secret.

We would also note that in recent months we have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the 'intelligence collecting operation' discussed in the Justice Department's recent court filing regarding the pending lawsuits, the senators wrote. This has come as a surprise to us, as we were initially inclined to take the executive branch's assertion about the importance of this 'operation' at face value.