- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

How special: Some of the very people who are attacking the Patriot Act on civil libertarian grounds are raising questions as to whether Attorney General John Ashcroft has the right to lobby in its favor.

Here’s an idea for a new slogan: “Free speech — Mr. Ashcroft need not apply.”

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to Mr. Ashcroft that speeches he delivered in U.S. cities to boost the besieged Patriot Act appeared to conflict with congressional rules regarding “publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.”

Mr. Conyers objected to Mr. Ashcroft’s goal of setting the record straight on the Patriot Act — that is, correcting the anti-Patriot Act propaganda — and suggested that Mr. Ashcroft “desist from further speaking engagements” until he could establish that what he was doing was legit. (Department of Justice attorneys disagree with Mr. Conyers’ interpretation.)

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union “questioned” the Justice Department’s “use of public money to counter broad public concern about the expansive surveillance powers of the law.”

Note that both Mr. Conyers and the ACLU object to Mr. Ashcroft speaking out. If he had agreed with them, if he were not a dissident on their issue, there would apparently be no problem.

On Monday, the New York Times editorialized on Mr. Conyers’ letter; the editorial failed to speak up for Mr. Ashcroft’s right to free speech and instead concentrated on the Patriot Act as “a deeply flawed piece of legislation.”

Au revoir the hallowed right to be wrong championed by free-speech aficionados.

Adios the public’s right to know.

In this case, the public has a right to know what it doesn’t know. Northern California U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said that in talks at law schools and universities, he has found “a tremendous amount of confusion” as to what the Patriot Act does and does not do.

For example, Mr. Ryan noted, “People don’t understand that prior to the adoption of the Patriot Act, law enforcement was able to get a grand jury subpoena to get library records.” The Patriot Act requires a judge’s supervision — to Mr. Ryan, that’s tougher.

The idea is not for the government to find out what citizens are reading, either. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo noted that the measure specifically precludes investigating citizens “solely on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”

“Several of the September 11 hijackers used public library computers to communicate with each other over the Internet, and other terrorist allies, and to conduct research that eventually led to the mass murder of more than 3,000 innocent Americans,” Mr. Corallo added. “I don’t think any reasonable person believes that a public library should be a safe haven for a terrorist.”

Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Idaho Republican, sponsored a bill — approved by the House in a 309-118 vote last month — eliminating funding for what are called “sneak and peek” searches permitted in the Patriot Act, as authorities can delay informing parties searched.

Has Mr. Otter’s office seen abuses of “sneak and peak”? Spokesman Mark Warbis said there was no particular case of abuse of the law that Mr. Otter’s office could cite. Mr. Warbis noted that Mr. Otter supports many provisions in the Patriot Act, but: “When it comes to constitutional rights, he believes he has a responsibility to be proactive, not wait until he sees violations, to protect those rights.”

OK, but if the law were as egregious as critics — Mr. Conyers, Mr. Otter, the ACLU — suggest, and if it brought such sweeping changes, you would think there would be abuses to report.

I will add that the feds are trying to prevent another September 11 attack. So you would think deliberative lawmakers would wait until abuses were evident before they rescinded a measure they passed overwhelmingly. Have they forgotten their goal was to prevent another September 11?

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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