- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday threatened a Bush administration veto on pending legislation that would curb key sections of the USA Patriot Act, which the Justice Department has called essential to its ongoing war on terrorism.

Mr. Ashcroft said changes outlined in the Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003, known as the Safe Act, would “undermine our ongoing campaign to detect and prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks.”

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, and other key senators, Mr. Ashcroft said President Bush’s “senior advisers will recommend that it be vetoed” if sent to the White House in its present form.

Mr. Bush has not vetoed any legislation since taking office in 2001.

During a Justice Department press conference yesterday, Mr. Ashcroft continued his defense of the Patriot Act, saying the Safe Act, if enacted, would “roll back” the country’s ability to defend itself against terrorists to “pre-September 11 vulnerabilities.”

“Al Qaeda is sworn to the destruction of America … sworn to the destruction of our way of life and our liberty,” he said. “Terrorists kill innocents abroad far too frequently, and they will try to kill innocents here again and again. With American lives at stake in this war, legislation that unilaterally disarms America’s defenses should be vetoed.”

Mr. Ashcroft said the proposed legislation would damage the government’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks and would needlessly risk American lives.

“No court, nor the Congress — neither of these has reported a single example of civil-liberties abuse under the Patriot Act, despite intense scrutiny,” he said. “And that fact is supported by four successive reports by the inspector general, and extensive congressional oversight, and thorough reporting to the Congress by the Justice Department, and the intense scrutiny of the courts.

“The Patriot Act has not been the source of abuse; it is the source of protection,” he said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, one of the Safe Act’s seven bipartisan co-sponsors, said the bill does not repeal the Patriot Act, which he voted for, but amends provisions “to reflect every American citizen’s right to be both safe and free.”

He described Mr. Ashcroft’s response as an “unfortunate overreaction to a reasoned and measured effort to mend the Patriot Act.”

“This extraordinary reaction to a bill that hasn’t even had a hearing in the Senate demonstrates that the administration fears that this reasonable bipartisan approach is likely to succeed,” Mr. Durbin said.

The Safe Act would amend the Patriot Act to place what it calls “reasonable limitations on the use of surveillance and the issuance of search warrants.”

In addition to Mr. Durbin, the bill is sponsored by Republican Sens. Larry E. Craig and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, and Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Specifically, the act would limit roving wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, place a limit on the authority to delay notice of search warrants, and provide privacy protections for libraries, bookstores and other personal records sought by federal authorities.

The Safe Act also would limit federal officials’ ability under national-security authority to access computers at libraries and determine who used them and for what purposes.

No hearings have been scheduled.

Mr. Durbin said the bill would “amend a number of troublesome provisions” in the Patriot Act that grant the FBI “broad, unchecked power to monitor American citizens.”

He said the legislation would impose “reasonable limits on law enforcement’s authority without hampering their ability to investigate and prevent terrorism.”

“I believe it is possible to combat terrorism and preserve our individual freedoms at the same time. The Patriot Act crossed the line on several key areas of civil liberties, and this legislation restores the necessary checks and balances to the system,” he said.

Mr. Bush has vigorously supported the Patriot Act, calling for expanded Justice Department authority to eliminate “unreasonable obstacles to investigating and prosecuting terrorism.” He wants the act expanded to include administrative subpoenas without prior grand-jury review; the ability to hold accused terrorists without bail; and expand the scope of the federal death penalty in terrorism cases.

The president reinforced his support for the act during his State of the Union address last week.

Enacted after September 11 to broaden investigative powers, the act has been criticized by federal, state and local lawmakers and has been the subject of lawsuits by civil liberties advocates.

A coalition of liberal and conservative organizations has asserted that the Patriot Act allows government to invade people’s privacy. Among the coalition are the National Rifle Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the American Library Association, the Free Congress Foundation and People for the American Way.

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