- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday staunchly defended the USA Patriot Act, describing the antiterrorism law passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks as a “necessary and effective tool” in combating terrorists and protecting liberty.

In the first in a series of campaign-style speeches set for a dozen cities, Mr. Ashcroft delivered an impassioned defense of the law — criticized by some Democrats, civil libertarians and others — saying it had led to the convictions of more than 130 terrorists and to the dismantling of terrorist “sleeper cells.”

“If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before September 11 rather than six weeks after the attacks,” Mr. Ashcroft said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

“For Congress to have done less would have been a failure of government’s most basic responsibility to the American people: to preserve life and liberty,” he said. “For Congress to have done less would have ignored the lethal lessons taught that tragic day in September.”

Mr. Ashcroft’s comments were aimed at critics of the law, including several Democratic presidential candidates, who say the Patriot Act has eroded personal freedom and threatened the privacy rights of innocent people.

The attorney general said that a 2-1 majority of Americans believe the law is necessary to protect liberty from the threats terrorists pose and that 91 percent of Americans understand that the Patriot Act has not affected their or their family’s civil rights.

“Almost two years after Americans and the citizens of more than 80 other nations died at the World Trade Center, we know that prevention works. The Patriot Act gives us the technological tools to anticipate, adapt and outthink our terrorist enemy,” he said. “To abandon these tools would senselessly imperil American lives and American liberty, and it would ignore the lessons of September 11.

“The cause we have chosen is just. The course we have chosen is constitutional. The course we have chosen is preserving lives,” he said. “For two years Americans have been safe. Because we are safer, our liberties are more secure.”

Mr. Ashcroft will take his defense of the act on the road today, with speeches to law enforcement authorities in Philadelphia and Cleveland, and tomorrow in Detroit and Des Moines, Iowa. Future stops will include Salt Lake City and Boston. The Justice Department also has created an Internet site to reinforce the attorney general’s message.

Civil libertarians, some Democratic and Republican members of Congress, the National Rifle Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others have charged the act allows government to invade people’s private lives.

The act also has prompted numerous complaints from citizens and civil-liberties advocates who say it exploits post-September 11 terrorism fears. More than 165 communities representing 16 million people in 26 states have passed resolutions condemning the act.

While the Patriot Act scaled down Foreign Intelligence Security Act restrictions on FBI agents’ use of technology to track terror and espionage suspects, agents still must show probable cause to a federal judge to conduct any surveillance.

Last month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a Senate committee the 340-page act had made the bureau more effective by facilitating information-sharing “within the law-enforcement and intelligence communities.” Before its passage, he said, FBI agents were “walled off from intelligence investigations” by FISA requirements.

Mr. Ashcroft said the act had helped to prevent terrorist attacks, saved innocent American lives and provided the security that ensures liberty. He said suspected terrorist cells had been neutralized in Detroit, Seattle, Buffalo, N.Y., and Portland, Ore; that 255 criminal charges had been brought; that 132 persons had been convicted or pleaded guilty; and that more than 3,000 terrorist suspects had been arrested in many countries.

Other terrorist suspects, he said, had “met a different fate.”

“We know now that there were fatal flaws in our national defense prior to September 11,” he said. “We know now that al Qaeda understood these flaws, and we know now that al Qaeda exploited the flaws in our defenses to murderous effect.”

He said the Patriot Act had rectified many of those flaws, giving agencies like the FBI and the CIA the ability to integrate their intelligence capabilities and the government the ability to “connect the dots, revealing the shadowy terrorist network in our midst.”

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