WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) defended the Patriot Act on Tuesday, saying the anti-terrorism measure passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks has been key to the nation's efforts to thwart attacks against Americans.
In a speech to the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute (search), Ashcroft sought to counter critics who say the act gives law enforcement unnecessary and overreaching powers that threaten the privacy rights of innocent people.
Ashcroft said the law has given police and prosecutors the tools needed to thwart would-be terrorists within the parameters of the Constitution. He gave several examples where the act allowed law enforcement officials to bring charges against suspects thought to be plotting attacks or supporting terror groups.
"If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act (search) six months before Sept. 11 rather than six weeks after the attacks," he said. " ... The cause we have chosen is just. The course we have chosen is constitutional."
Ashcroft cited elements of the law that he says make it easier for law enforcement officials to pursue suspected criminals. For example, prosecutors no longer must get permission for different wiretaps every time a suspect changes cell phones. Instead, the wiretap provision applies to the suspect rather than a specific phone.
Ashcroft's speech marked the start of a campaign-style offensive aimed at countering criticism from leading Democrats and civil liberties advocates about the Patriot Act. He plans a road trip Wednesday and Thursday, with remarks to law enforcement audiences in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Des Moines, Iowa.
Among the dozen or so future stops are Salt Lake City and Boston, officials said. The Justice Department put up an Internet site to reinforce the pro-Patriot Act message and all 94 U.S. attorneys are being encouraged to hold town hall-style meetings to stress the law's benefits in fighting terrorism.
"There is a lot of confusion about what the Patriot Act does and does not do," said Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh. "We are going to try to better educate the public."
In his speech, Ashcroft highlighted the Patriot Act's removal of a barrier that had prevented intelligence agents from sharing information with criminal investigators and prosecutors. Also highlighted will be such provisions as the "roving wiretap" authority that enables investigators to track phones over multiple jurisdictions under a single warrant.
The law has become a political punching bag for the Democratic presidential candidates and other top party members. Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore said in a speech at New York University that the law allows President Bush to "send his assistants into every public library in America and secretly monitor what the rest of us are reading."
Justice officials say that claim is one of many examples of misperceptions about the law. They say that books, documents or other records from any source, including a library, can only be examined by the FBI under the Patriot Act in an international terrorism or intelligence investigation and only with approval of a federal judge.
Still, such perceptions have led to passage of anti-Patriot Act resolutions by legislators in Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont and by more than 142 local governments. The Republican-led House also voted recently to restrict so-called "sneak and peek" searches that allow for delayed notification of the target.
The American Civil Liberties Union (search) insists that these actions show growing concern that the Patriot Act could expose innocent citizens to improper surveillance and searches.
"How often do you see the attorney general go on a sort of a charm offensive?" asked Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office. "I see this as a defensive measure on his part. It is a political campaign."
David Rohde, political science professor at Michigan State University, noted that Ashcroft's initial foray takes him through swing states in the 2004 presidential race: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
The campaign could help prevent the eventual Democratic nominee from using perceptions about the Patriot Act against Bush, Rohde said.
"The hope is that if the Democrats can draw people's attention to things they don't like about the Patriot Act, eventually that will spill over onto President Bush," Rohde said. "The criticism of the Patriot Act is also a way of motivating core Democratic constituencies."