Attorney general defends Patriot Act

In hearing on its renewal, Gonzales warns against efforts to dismantle law

April 06, 2005|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration launched a campaign yesterday to preserve and expand the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks. In unusually strong language before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales defended the administration's use of the law and warned that any effort to dismantle it would be tantamount to "unilateral disarmament" in the war on terrorism.

The law, portions of which will expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts, has drawn opposition across the political spectrum, from civil liberties groups to libertarian conservatives concerned that it gives the government too much power to intrude into people's lives.

Gonzales disclosed that the government has used the act's most hotly debated sections dozens of times in investigating and prosecuting terrorism and other crimes.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III - testifying at the same hearing - argued for expanding the bureau's authority to issue administrative subpoenas in terrorism cases, something that would give it access to a wider range of data without having to go to court.

The bureau has that authority in cases involving drug trafficking, health care fraud and child exploitation, Mueller said. But Democratic lawmakers have rejected previous administration requests for broader subpoena authority.

Yesterday's action marked the beginning of what is expected to be a long and wrenching congressional review of how the Patriot Act has operated.

The law was enacted with broad bipartisan support six weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Congress is about to engage in a debate that could last months. Sixteen of the act's provisions, including some that U.S. officials consider essential, are set to expire this year.

To critics, the law - which made it easier for the government to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists - has become a symbol of the abuses immigrants and others have suffered since the Sept. 11 attacks. But public opinion remains divided, in part because much of the Patriot Act has been shrouded in secrecy.

Some congressional Republicans - including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary Committee - have expressed concerns about how the law has operated and indicated that they think revisions are needed.

At the hearing, Gonzales disclosed previously classified information showing how the government has used secret warrants obtained under the Patriot Act to amass a host of business and other personal records in terrorism investigations. The unusual public accounting, and Gonzales' embrace of what he called "technical modifications" in the law, seemed to be an attempt to strike a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, John Ashcroft, whose support for the law was often viewed in Congress as unyielding.

The new attorney general has agreed to a private meeting to discuss the law with the American Civil Liberties Union, an audience the group said that it never got from Ashcroft.

"It is a grand departure from your predecessor," Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said at the hearing. "I think it is the right spirit."

At the same time, Durbin and others indicated that they did not think the changes Gonzales had embraced went far enough.

Committee members grilled Gonzales over such concerns as the standards the government uses in obtaining a new form of search warrant that allows authorities to delay notifying the target of an investigation, sometimes until weeks after the search has occurred. The authority for that type of warrant under the Patriot Act is one that does not expire this year, but it has been targeted by critics of the act for repeal.

Some of the sharpest questioning came from Specter, who asked whether Gonzales would agree to limits on a provision in Section 215 of the law, which has been targeted by library groups as possibly allowing the government to investigate the reading habits of ordinary citizens.

Gonzales told lawmakers that the government had used Section 215 on 35 occasions - to obtain information about drivers' licenses, apartment leases and Internet subscribers but never library usage.

The House begins its own oversight hearings into the Patriot Act today. Gonzales is expected to appear.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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