Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday called on Congress to renew the USA Patriot Act, saying the threat from international terrorism -- including the al Qaeda network -- was "still very real" despite U.S. successes in capturing and killing global terrorists.
In his first major address since his contentious confirmation hearing last month, Mr. Gonzales told a meeting of the Hoover Institution in Washington that some of the act's provisions will expire at the end of this year, but that "the terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule."
"The top priority of the United States government remains protecting our citizens from an unfamiliar type of enemy, one that does not share our values, or cherish life, or respect the rule of law," he said. "This foe is quite willing to pursue the mass murder of innocent Americans and the destruction of our way of life in order to achieve their goals.
"For this reason, they must be defeated. Without security, there can be no real freedom, and we cannot relent in fulfilling this most basic obligation of government," he told members of the conservative think tank based on the campus of Stanford University.
Senate Democrats and some civil rights organizations have challenged the act, saying it allows the government to pry into the activities of private citizens in its search for terrorists.
But Mr. Gonzales, who formerly served as White House counsel, described the Patriot Act as "one of the most important weapons" the Justice Department has in the war against terror, adding that the "brave and dedicated men and women" who work each day to track down, disrupt and prosecute terrorists deserve to have "the right tools and resources" to do the job.
Three years after its passage, Mr. Gonzales said, the Patriot Act has helped prevent more terror attacks by lowering the bureaucratic wall that separated law enforcement from the intelligence community and ensuring that law enforcement could battle terrorism by deploying many legal tools long used against drug smugglers, mobsters and other criminals.
"The coming congressional deliberations regarding the reauthorization of the Patriot Act are important. Debate and discussion reflect our strength as a democracy," he said, adding that he would not support changes in the law that would make the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Mr. Gonzales' comments came as part of what he called an explanation of his vision for the Justice Department and what he hopes to accomplish as the nation's 80th attorney general.
He said as the department pursues justice -- from fighting the war on terror to combating violent crime, from prosecuting corporate fraud to protecting and enforcing civil rights -- its mission remains clear: "to expand freedom, extend opportunity and protect human dignity and equal justice for all."
Mr. Gonzales, the first Hispanic-American to be named as attorney general, also called the country's immigration litigation system "broken," adding that although aliens should be given fair and complete hearings, reforms should ensure that the system does not reward criminals or overburden the court system with unnecessary appeals.
Mr. Gonzales also said the Senate's system of approving judicial nominees needs to be "fixed" so presidential nominees could receive fair hearings; that the department intends to vigorously pursue those who violate obscenity laws; and that he would increase from 15 to 20 the number of cities with federal agents to help combat violent crime as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods.