WASHINGTON – Allowing the Patriot Act (search) to sunset would leave police officers in the dark, President Bush said Thursday to an audience of law-enforcement officials in Columbus, Ohio.
Bush, who is encouraging Congress (search) to renew provisions of the 2001 law in the face of resistance from civil liberties groups who say the measure goes to far, used a local case to emphasize the utility of the law.
In that case, a terrorism task force employed provisions of the Patriot Act to track down a man who was plotting attacks in New York and the Midwest. The man, Iyman Faris, pled guilty of plotting attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge (search) and an Ohio mall after he saw the case against him.
"They used new information-sharing provisions to piece together details about his time in Afghanistan and his plan to launch an attack on the United States. They used the Patriot Act to discover that Faris had cased possible targets in New York and that he'd reported his findings to Al Qaeda," Bush told the Ohio Patrol Training Academy
Bush said Faris spent weeks detailing his Al Qaeda connections for law-enforcement agents and is serving 20 years in prison. Among the details, Faris, a truck driver from Columbus, told the court that he met Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden in 2000 at a training camp in Afghanistan. He gave sleeping bags, cell phones and other assistance to operatives there.
Faris was seized in May 2003, two months after Al Qaeda No. 2 man Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan. Mohammed was said to have planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and is believed to be Faris' main contact in an effort to plan a second wave of attacks.
According to the plan, Faris probed whether he could use a gas cutter to burn through the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension cables. He also plotted with a Somali immigrant to blow up an unidentified central Ohio shopping mall.
"Once he was confronted with the evidence against him, he cooperated and provided valuable information to law-enforcement authorities," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said before the president's speech. The academy where the speech was delivered was part of the task force that uncovered the plot.
The Patriot Act was passed six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. It applies police powers used against drug dealers and organized crime to the War on Terror and allows CIA and foreign intelligence sharing with the FBI. The bill also allows for increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado for months and permits secret proceedings in immigration cases.
The Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday recommended that nine of the act's 15 provisions be reauthorized before they expire at the end of the year. Bush wants them all renewed.
"My message to Congress is clear: The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of the year and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act," he said.
Some members of the Senate want to expand the provisions of the act to give the FBI the ability to issue administrative subpoenas without going through a judge or grand jury. Supporters also want to use elements of the act to go after common criminals.
Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are pushing a bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would scale back some of its powers.
"We do not want to end the Patriot Act. We want to mend the Patriot Act," Durbin said.
Civil liberties groups say the measures undermine basic freedoms from unfair search-and-seizure laws. They particularly deplore a measure that allows law enforcement and intelligence units to review the reading lists of suspects from libraries and bookstores. They also protest a provision that lets police search property without forewarning the owner.
Bush said even critics of the Patriot Act concede they have not documented any cases of the measure being abused, but the American Civil Liberties Union says the law may still violate civil liberties.
"The real problem is that these record searches take place behind closed doors and are kept secret forever," said Lisa Graves, the ACLU's senior counsel for legislative strategy. Graves said 7,000 people have complained to the Justice Department's inspector general while far more still don't even realize they have been subject to searches. The ACLU wants the government to show evidence of a connection to terrorist activity before being allowed to search records, she added.
But Bush said the law has proven results. More than half of the 400 suspects arrested after employing the law have been convicted of their crimes.
"Federal, state and local law enforcement had used the Patriot Act to break up terror cells in New York and Oregon and Virginia and in Florida. We prosecuted terrorist operatives and supporters in California, in Texas, in New Jersey, in Illinois and North Carolina and Ohio," Bush said.
"These efforts have not always made the headlines, but they've made communities safer."
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.