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Ashcroft: Patriot Act a Turning Point

August 20, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The USA Patriot Act will be seen as a turning point in the war against terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft says, launching a nationwide campaign to counter criticism that the law undermines civil liberties and the Constitution.

``We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil,″ Ashcroft said in a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. ``We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty.″

Ashcroft was appearing Wednesday in Philadelphia to reinforce the message, part of a monthlong tour of more than a dozen cities that includes Cleveland later Wednesday and Detroit and Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday.

Quoting Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill in his Tuesday speech, Ashcroft compared the law passed six weeks after the 2001 attacks to such great historical events as the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg and U.S. aid that bolstered Great Britain in the early days of the struggle against Nazi Germany.

Critics scoffed, contending that the campaign is a sign of growing public skepticism about the Patriot Act.

``Although the Department of Justice is understandably reluctant to admit it, the real significance of this road show is that is shows the Patriot Act is becoming a kitchen table issue,″ said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Patriot Act expanded government surveillance capabilities, toughened criminal penalties for terrorists and removed a legal barrier that for years prevented intelligence agencies and criminal investigators and prosecutors from sharing information.

To critics, the law has opened the door to greater government snooping, weakened constitutional protections against searches and seizures, and subjected to FBI scrutiny more records and documents, such as those held by libraries and businesses.

Legislators in Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont and more than 150 communities around the country have passed anti-Patriot Act measures. The Republican-led House, by an overwhelming margin, recently passed an amendment to restrict so-called ``sneak and peek″ searches that allow for the delayed notification of the search target. Some lawmakers want to accelerate the law’s 2005 expiration date.

``There is a great deal of unease about how these new laws are being used,″ said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Ashcroft contends that Americans broadly support the Patriot Act, citing opinion polls and the lopsided votes in favor when the measure passed Congress in 2001. Justice Department officials say the opposition is being generated by a vocal minority that has spread false impressions of the law.

The Patriot Act, Ashcroft said, allows the government to ``anticipate, adapt and outthink our terrorist enemy. To abandon these tools would senselessly imperil American lives and American liberty, and ignore the lessons of Sept. 11.″

The recent congressional intelligence investigation into the failures that preceded the attacks is ``like a preamble″ to the Patriot Act, Ashcroft said. Among other things, that report cited lack of communication and cooperation between federal agencies such as the CIA and FBI and outmoded technology as reasons the government failed to ``connect the dots″ and possibly prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

``If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before Sept. 11 rather than six weeks after the attacks,″ Ashcroft said.

The Justice Department campaign includes a special Internet site called ``Preserving Life and Liberty″ that starts with a quote from the Declaration of Independence. The site includes key provisions in the Patriot Act as well as its entire text, favorable quotes from politicians and selected positive stories about the law.

As part of the campaign, all 94 U.S. attorneys around the country are being encouraged to hold town hall-style events to discuss the Patriot Act and its role in preventing terror.

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On the Net:

Justice Department Patriot Act site: http://www.lifeandliberty.gov

American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

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