- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Justice Department yesterday was criticized for its secretive nature regarding the Patriot Act and chastised by critics who question whether the act is being used to violate civil liberties.

The dismissal of concerns expressed by elected officials and U.S. citizens is “arrogant” and “condescending,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Congress established the Patriot Act nearly two years ago to give law enforcement the tools it wanted to track down terrorists. The act has drawn criticism from Capitol Hill and advocacy groups, ranging from the American Conservative Union to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“First Amendment rights or Second Amendment rights or Fifth Amendment rights or any others shouldn’t be dismissed in a condescending way by the administration,” Mr. Leahy said.

“We have enormous freedoms in this country. If we’re going to protect those freedoms, we have to have confidence that the government will respect them,” Mr. Leahy said.

Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said he would hold a series of hearings on the Patriot Act to “cut through the rhetoric, confusion and distortion. …”

Top law enforcement officials testified before the committee about the benefits of the Patriot Act, which Congress passed in response to the September 11 attacks.

Several bills in the House and Senate would revamp the law, which allows “sneak and peak” warrants that delay notices to those being searched, roving wiretaps and other investigative tools.

Several Republicans in the House and Senate have been critical of the act, but Democrats were the only panel members yesterday to criticize the law.

Bush administration officials said the public needs a better understanding of how the Patriot Act works.

“So much of what people are angry about doesn’t concern the Patriot Act or doesn’t involve it,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

“Sometimes you hear the expression ‘If a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it …’; with the Patriot Act, a tree hasn’t fallen but lots of people hear it loudly,” he said.

Christopher Wray, chief of the criminal division of the Justice Department, said there is a “level of confusion in the public discourse about what is and is not part of the Patriot Act.”

“The Patriot Act, for better or for worse, has become sort of a shorthand for every kind of complaint or criticism that anyone would have with respect to anything to do with terrorism,” Mr. Wray said.

Most important, officials said the act removed legal barriers that prevented law enforcement officials from sharing information between intelligence and military communities. Its use has led to 280 criminal charges and 150 convictions.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, agreed that criticism has been “overblown” and called the law a “good-faith effort.” However, he said he is troubled by the Justice Department’s lack of candor.

“At a time when government has increased authority to find out more information about individual citizens, the department has been less and less willing to share basic information about its activities,” Mr. Biden said.

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