WASHINGTON – Some conservative Republicans gave a chilly reception to recent explanations by Attorney General John Ashcroft about the USA Patriot Act (search), the controversial law expanding police powers to help law enforcement fight terror.
Ashcroft just wrapped up a nationwide promotional tour that he hoped would burnish the image of the law. But on his cross-country trip, he faced considerable resistance from local governments, including those in conservative areas, which expressed concerns about the potential for civil rights violations created by the law.
Several of those municipal governments have passed or are weighing resolutions critical of the law. Nine communities representing 2.2 million people passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions in just the three weeks the attorney general was on tour.
Ashcroft found a mixed reception on his 16-city tour, being warmly received by law enforcement personnel, but also exposed to loud protesters who made their sentiments well known outside his events.
If the “pre-emptive-strike philosophy” embodied in the Patriot Act as well as the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Assisted Passenger Screening System (search) continues, the result could be devastating to civil liberties, said Bob Barr, a former Republican U.S. representative from Georgia and a leading critic of the Patriot Act.
“If in fact that approach is allowed to stand through the Patriot Act and other things, we will effectively have eviscerated the 14th Amendment because we will allow the government to gather evidence of people without suspecting a crime,” Barr, now chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation's 21st Century Center for Privacy and Freedom (search), told Foxnews.com.
The Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, has earned a critical eye over its provision that allows investigators to conduct searches and delay notification to suspects if officials believe it would jeopardize the investigation. The law also authorizes nationwide search warrants for terrorism investigations, including for e-mail records, computer billing records and Internet use.
Quoting such figures as former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Ashcroft says the new tools provided by the act are well grounded in the Constitution and have been vital to preventing terrorist attacks.
"We have used the tools provided in the Patriot Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people. We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil," Ashcroft said in a speech in Boise, Idaho, last month.
"We have used these tools to save innocent American lives. We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty," he said.
Still, communities, including some traditionally supportive of the Bush administration, have registered concerns or outright opposition to the act. Emboldened by members of Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union, three states and 159 cities, counties and towns that cover more than 19 million people have passed resolutions critical of the Patriot Act, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (search).
Among the larger cities to oppose the law are Denver and Boulder, Colo., and Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Alaska.
And some locales have gone even further than just expressing displeasure. In April, Beaverhead County, Mont., called on Congress "to repeal all sections of the Patriot Act." Arcata, Calif., on the northern coastline, passed a city ordinance imposing a $57 fine on any city department head who voluntarily complies with investigations or arrests under the Patriot Act.
Forty-four state library associations have also expressed concerns, saying a provision in the bill allows government officials to scrutinize patrons' records.
But Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo told Foxnews.com that the provision on library records includes several safeguards and is not intended as permission to review lists of all borrowers' selections.
Corallo added that opponents of the act “are in the very small minority of the public, and many of them, unfortunately, have been very loose with the facts when it comes to debating the Patriot Act.”
That small minority, however, includes members of Congress, who are capable of slashing the law. Rep. C. L. Butch Otter (search), R-Idaho, who praised the efforts of citizens and community organizations to roll back the Patriot Act in a letter last month, successfully joined Reps. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, in July to co-sponsor an amendment to the Justice Department funding bill for fiscal year 2004.
The amendment, termed “the terrorist tip-off amendment” by the Justice Department, would prevent DOJ from using any appropriated funds for Section 213 of the Patriot Act. That section allows delayed notification for the execution of search warrants.
In 2001, Otter was one of only three Republicans to oppose the Patriot Act, but in July, 111 of his Republican colleagues joined him to pass the amendment, 309-118.
It is unlikely the Senate will pass a similar measure to Otter's amendment, though at least two Republican senators -- Larry Craig of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- have suggested that the Patriot Act should be rethought.
Still, Corallo's claim that only a minority of Americans oppose the law bears out in public polls.
A July 31 Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll shows 91 percent of registered voters surveyed said that the Patriot Act had not affected their civil liberties. Another 56 percent said the law is good for the country.
A Gallup poll released Tuesday shows that the vast majority of Americans do not think the Patriot Act is trampling constitutional rights in the process of fighting terrorism. The poll showed that 48 percent of those surveyed said the bill is "about right" and 21 percent said it doesn't go far enough. Only 22 percent of those asked say the bill goes too far.
“There is a very, very small group of people who are criticizing the act, but they are actually getting about 95 percent of the media attention,” Corallo said. “We think the debate is healthy. We would just like the debate to be on balanced grounds. The average American certainly thinks that this administration has been respectful of civil liberties.”
But Barr disputed the notion that only a small number of Americans oppose the Patriot Act.
“The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Americans don’t have any idea what this is.” Barr said, adding that the number of opponents is growing among those who have really investigated the act.
"If that were not the case, you would not see the attorney general going on a whistle-stop tour to shore up support,” he said.