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Bush Urges Renewal of Patriot Act

He asks Congress to extend 16 provisions of the law set to expire at year's end. Democratic critic says the president presents a 'false choice.'

June 10, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Bush on Thursday called on Congress to extend portions of the USA Patriot Act due to expire at the end of the year, calling them vital law enforcement tools in the war against terrorism.

"Letting those provisions expire would leave law enforcement in the dark," Bush said in an address at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy. "All 16 provisions are practical, important and they are constitutional. Congress needs to renew them all and this time ... make the provisions permanent."

Enacted six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act has sparked sharp debate. Supporters have argued that it gives law enforcement much-needed powers to fight terrorists; some lawmakers and civil liberties groups counter that it unduly erodes the rights of private citizens.

Bush offered a strong defense of the law Thursday, saying it had "accomplished exactly what it was designed to do. It has protected American liberty and saved American lives."

In a statement after Bush's speech, Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading critic of the law, said the president had presented "a false choice to the American people -- that we have to reauthorize the Patriot Act without any changes or leave our country vulnerable to terrorist attacks."

Committees in the House and Senate are working on renewing the act's provisions.

On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to expand the Patriot Act, approving a provision that would allow the FBI to use "administrative subpoenas" to obtain medical, financial, library and other records without a judge's approval in terrorism cases.

The president Thursday did not mention expansion of the act, but White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said Bush supported such efforts.

"Our first priority is to make permanent the vital tools for law enforcement in the Patriot Act," Perrino said. "There are additional measures we support that law enforcement already has for other criminal activity, such as the administrative subpoena authority that can now be used in cases such as healthcare fraud or child exploitation."

In his speech, Bush said that since Sept. 11, "federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." He said authorities had used the Patriot Act to break up terrorist cells in New York, Florida, Oregon and Virginia.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is arguing in court that the Patriot Act is unconstitutional, challenged Bush's numbers.

Citing a study by Syracuse University, Lisa Graves, an ACLU senior counsel, said in a written statement that the "vast majority" of the 400 cases Bush mentioned were for "minor, non-terrorism offenses. These individuals posed such little threat to national security that most served no jail time."

Bush also said the act had "closed dangerous gaps" that terrorists had exploited. The 2001 law, among other things, removed barriers that had prevented the sharing of intelligence by various U.S. agencies, such as the CIA and the FBI.

Bush told the several hundred highway patrol officers gathered here that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had worked with civil rights groups in monitoring the administration's application of the Patriot Act.

He quoted Feinstein as saying: "We've scrubbed the area, and I have no reported abuses." Bush added: "Remember that the next time you hear someone make an unfair criticism of this important, good law."

Howard Gantman, Feinstein's spokesman, said the senator's office had experienced difficulty obtaining pertinent information about the act from the Justice Department, particularly under former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. Gantman said the department had been more forthcoming under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, but not all the information had been examined.

Gantman said Feinstein backed the renewal of the Patriot Act's 16 expiring provisions, but she opposed expanding the law.

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