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Ashcroft Talks Up the Patriot Act

Attorney general seeks to counter criticism that the post-9/11 law has eroded civil liberties.

August 20, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, suddenly operating on the defensive, launched a campaign to shore up support for the USA Patriot Act, the terror-fighting law approved after the Sept. 11 attacks that is being assailed by civil libertarians and in Congress.

In the first of more than a dozen speeches that he is planning over the next month, Ashcroft characterized the Patriot Act as an incremental but crucial tool in helping the Justice Department root out terrorists and prevent additional attacks.

"Two years later, the evidence is clear," Ashcroft said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. "If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before Sept. 11th rather than six weeks after the attacks." He said the act righted "fatal flaws" in the government's law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus that the global Al Qaeda terror network exploited to "murderous effect."

Ashcroft plans to deliver a similar message to law-enforcement personnel in more than a dozen cities in coming weeks, a spokesman said, including stops in Philadelphia and Cleveland today and in Detroit and Des Moines on Thursday. As part of the Patriot Act campaign, federal prosecutors in a number of cities are also holding town hall-style meetings to explain the workings of the act to individuals and community groups. The public-relations offensive comes as the law is being attacked as flawed. Last month, the House voted to gut a portion of the law that permits government investigators to conduct unannounced "sneak and peek" searches in terror cases. Two lawsuits have been filed recently that seek to have portions of the act declared unconstitutional.

In a lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Detroit, the ACLU has taken on a provision of the act that makes it easier for the government to gather evidence in anti-terror investigations. The suit -- on behalf of, among others, a Muslim community group that operates a mosque and a refugee center -- alleges that the provision violates the rights guaranteed under the 1st Amendment.

"This is clearly the attorney general on the defensive. He is now having to expend his energies justifying the powers he seized for himself almost two years ago," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. "This is clearly a cleanup job. He is trying to use fear and insecurity as a way to stifle dissent and debate which is springing up.

"The Patriot Act changed the nation's laws on immigration, on individual privacy, on surveillance, on due process, in rather significant and breathtaking ways," Romero said. Romero said the ACLU plans to shadow Ashcroft, holding meetings in some of the cities he is visiting to present its side. However the attacks fare, the Justice Department appears to be retrenching.

A few months ago, a leaked internal document suggested the department was on the verge of trying to push an aggressive new expansion of Patriot Act powers through Congress. But a Justice Department spokesman on Tuesday said Ashcroft would not be discussing any new proposals on his tour.

In his speech, the former Missouri senator and governor sounded like a candidate on the stump. He said the final tribute to those who died Sept. 11 "must be to fulfill our responsibility to defend the living. Our greatest memorial to those who have passed must be to protect the lives and liberties of those yet to come."

He drew an analogy between the enactment of the Patriot Act and "the long winter of 1941" when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appealed to the United States for help in defending freedom from the Nazi scourge. "In the days after Sept. 11th, we appealed to the Congress for help in defending freedom from terrorism with the same refrain, 'Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,' " Ashcroft said.

He cited aspects of the law that make it easier for criminal prosecutors and the intelligence community to share information and conduct cooperative investigations. "We have built a new ethos of justice, one rooted in cooperation, nurtured by coordination and focused on a single overarching goal: the prevention of terrorist attacks," he said.

Ashcroft cited the arrest last week in Newark, N.J., of a British arms dealer accused of trying to sell shoulder-mounted missiles as evidence that the Justice Department is winning the war on terror. But he said there is more work to be done, saying that Tuesday's deadly truck-bomb explosion at the U.N. compound in Baghdad confirms that the threat of terrorism is "real" and "imminent."

"The Patriot Act gives us the technological tools to anticipate, adapt and outthink our terrorist enemy," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft announced that the department has set up a Web site -- www.lifeandliberty.gov -- that touts the department's record in terror cases. It also includes sections on "dispelling the myths" that have grown around the act, as well as testimonials from members of Congress, including Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who is a presidential candidate.

Despite his initial support for the Patriot Act, Edwards said Tuesday he has serious concerns about how the act is being administered.

"John Ashcroft and this administration can get on a bus and spin their wheels all they want about the Patriot Act," he said in a prepared statement. " ... But that won't change the fact that they have rolled over our rights for the last two years. What they have done isn't cause for celebration; it should cause us to slam on their brakes."

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