- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday told a Senate committee the USA Patriot Act has made the bureau more effective by facilitating information sharing “within the law-enforcement and intelligence communities.”

Prior to the passage of the act, FBI agents were “walled off from intelligence investigations” by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), Mr. Mueller said.

Passed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act dismantled that wall by scaling down FISA restrictions, essentially paving the way for FBI agents to use secret wiretaps and other sophisticated surveillance equipment to track terrorism and espionage suspects.

While agents still must prove probable cause to a federal judge to conduct such surveillance, the “resulting free flow of information and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence has expanded our ability to use all appropriate resources to prevent terrorism,” Mr. Mueller said.

Despite such praise from law-enforcement agencies, the Patriot Act has prompted numerous complaints from citizens and civil-liberties advocates who say the law unnecessarily enhances the government’s snooping power by exploiting post-September 11 terrorism fears.

Mr. Mueller’s statements, made yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing on law enforcement and terrorism, came just two days after the Justice Department released an inspector general’s report examining more than 1,000 complaints of civil rights and civil-liberties violations under the Patriot Act.

In one case, an Arab American charged that FBI agents illegally searched and vandalized his apartment, stole items and called him a terrorist. The man claimed the FBI recruited a friend to plant drugs in his home, which the FBI again raided four months later, arresting him.

But the report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said that, of the more than 1,000 complaints, only 34 were credible. Still, a growing number of communities nationwide have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act on grounds it violates civil liberties.

Some 165 communities representing more than 16 million people in 26 states have passed resolutions condemning the act, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Most resolutions signed against the 340-page act — the acronym stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” — condemn provisions that compel libraries and bookstores to assist federal investigators in monitoring the reading habits of suspects.

But a recent ACLU report said the Patriot Act gives the FBI “access to highly personal ‘business records’ — including financial, medical, mental health, library and student records — with no meaningful judicial oversight.”

Justice Department officials say such criticisms are arbitrary, noting investigators still must get a federal judge to approve such surveillance.

While Judiciary Committee members did not press the question of civil-liberties violations yesterday, Mr. Mueller brought it up himself.

“We are making every effort to effectively balance our obligation to protect Americans from terrorism with our obligation to protect their civil liberties,” he said.

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