Ashcroft to Appear Before House Panel on Patriot Act

Friday, 23 May 2003 03:57 by: Anonymous

  Ashcroft to Appear Before House Panel on Patriot Act

  Thursday 22 May 2003

  Attorney General John Ashcroft will be called to testify in early June before a congressional committee examining how the Justice Department and FBI handled post-September 11 expanded powers to fight terrorism, sources said Wednesday.

  Although it has not been announced, Justice Department officials and congressional sources said Ashcroft is tentatively set to appear June 5, before the House Judiciary Committee.

  That committee Tuesday made public a recent 60-page Justice Department response to the lawmakers' concerns about the government's aggressive approach to searching for sleeper cells, suspicious fund-raising groups and others with suspected ties to terrorist organizations.

  The report contains the first Justice Department acknowledgment that "fewer than 50" individuals have been detained in secrecy as material witnesses in connection with ongoing terrorism investigations. Unofficial newspaper estimates and interest group compilations had generally ranged from about two dozen to as many as 44.

  The report said fewer than 10 FBI field offices have been involved in investigations of individuals attending mosques, and in only one case was it not part of a specific criminal inquiry.

  It also said about 50 libraries nationwide had been contacted by agents in terrorism investigations. Civil libertarians and library groups have raised concern about the potential for abuse if agents are able to pry into the reading lists of library users.

  Although the attorney general has testified before the Senate and before spending committees, it will mark his first appearance before the House oversight panel since shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted congressional passage of the USA Patriot Act.

  Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, has openly cautioned the Bush administration against seeking additional terrorist-hunting legislation until questions are resolved about the Justice Department's current use of key provisions of the Patriot Act.
Neither the Committee nor Justice Department indicated plans for additional legislative proposals.

  Sensenbrenner responded cautiously to the Justice Department's explanation of how it is implementing the new law, saying Ashcroft's department "should be commended for the timing and thoroughness of these answers."

  "There is a lot of new information in there, and members will no doubt want to follow up on it," said committee spokesman Jeff Lungren.

  The ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, left no doubt about that in issuing a stinging criticism Wednesday.

  "The most secretive administration in history continues to stonewall the American public with non-answers to vital questions about their most important civil liberties and personal freedoms," Conyers said.

  "When Congress asks basic questions such as the mere number of times new surveillance powers have been used, it is either told there are no records or is told the number itself is classified," he added.

  That prompted a strong Justice Department rebuke of Conyers in a written statement released Wednesday night by Barbara Comstock, the chief spokeswoman.

  "Congressman Conyers made clear when he voted against the Patriot Act that he opposes the tools in the bill that we have demonstrated are greatly assisting us in tracking terrorists and disrupting their activities," said Comstock.

  "The work of the department was clearly explained and outlined in the 60-plus pages of material that was provided to the Hill this week ... and dozens of hearings the department has participated in since September 11th," she said.

  Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, a key architect and defender of Justice Department policies, testified Tuesday before one of the panel's subcommittees, saying the information reflected restraint by investigators.

  Dinh said the new law enforcement tools have been carefully targeted on cases of individuals where there is evidence of a crime.

  The Justice Department has said the Patriot Act provisions that allow intelligence agents and prosecutors to share information have been a potent weapon in pursuing terrorists. Critics have complained the information sharing arrangements remove an important protection from prosecutorial abuse.

  Assistant Attorney General Jamie Brown, who signed the report, said the Patriot Act has been crucial in preventing more terrorist attacks.

  "The government's success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland in the 20 months since September 11, 2001 would have been much more difficult, if not impossibly so, without the USA Patriot Act," Brown said.

  Go to Original

  Alaska Passes Anti-Patriot Act Resolution; Second State to Oppose Feds
  By Dean Schabner
  ABC News

  Friday 23 May 2003

  Alaska has joined a growing national rebellion against the USA Patriot Act, voting to oppose the massive federal anti-terrorism law passed by Congress soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

  The state Legislature used some of the strongest language yet in passing a resolution condemning USA Patriot, following the lead of Hawaii and 112 cities, towns and counties around the country that have passed similar resolutions against the law.

But Alaska's measure goes further than most, advising police and other state agencies not to "initiate, participate in, or assist or cooperate with an inquiry, investigation, surveillance or detention" if there is not "reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under Alaska State law."

  "We have a concern that [the Patriot Act] could be abused. The potential for abuse is too great," said Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat who co-sponsored the resolution. "America is an open state. There's a cost to that. Where are we willing to sacrifice for that? Guys are dying on the battlefield to protect our freedoms. It's up to us to protect those freedoms here at home."

  "We hope that a resolution like this, with the bipartisan support that it has, will urge Congress to re-examine the provisions of the USA Patriot Act that challenge the individual freedoms that make this country great," said Rep. John Coghill, a Republican from North Pole who co-sponsored the resolution. "If we sacrifice our freedom, we let terrorism win."

  Plea to Fix It

  The resolution also says that "the Alaska State Legislature implores the United States Congress to correct provisions in the USA Patriot Act and other measures that infringe on civil liberties, and opposes any pending and future federal legislation to the extent that it infringes on Americans' civil rights and liberties."

  Other local government resolutions have ranged from mild expressions of discomfort with the powers that the federal law gives law enforcement to orders to local police and other personnel not to assist federal agents in investigations, if it seems those investigations violate individuals' civil rights.

  The Alaskan measure passed in the state House, with 27 Republicans and 13 Democrats, by a vote of 32-1. It passed 19-0 in the Senate Wednesday. There are 12 Republicans and eight Democrats in the state Senate.

  Rep. Bob Lynn, a Republican from Anchorage, was the only legislator to vote against the resolution in either house. He said the job of evaluating the Patriot Act should be left to the state's congressional delegation.

  "They have the information they need and the moxy to find anything that needs to be corrected in that law and to correct them." he said. "We just don't have the information that we need here."

  He said that he doesn't believe the Patriot Act is perfect, but he feels that some extraordinary measures are needed to protect the country from terrorist threats.

"We just elevated the attack status up to orange and I think we need to keep some common sense measures in place to protect people from terrorism," said Lynn, a retired Air Force officer and a Vietnam War veteran. "I don't think we need to be second-guessing President Bush."

  After Gov. Frank Murkowski signs the resolution to acknowledge that he has read it, copies will be sent to President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the Alaska congressional delegation, Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans.

  Balancing Freedom and Protection

  Most local governments that have passed the resolutions have been smaller towns, many of them college communities, but major cities such as Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., San Francisco and Seattle have all passed measures.

  Hawaii, the only other state that has passed a resolution, approved a statement in April that says in part "to the extent legally possible, no state resources including law enforcement funds and educational administrative resources may be used for unconstitutional activities."

  Hawaii's Legislature is controlled by Democrats, but the resolution passed 35-12 in the House and 21-3 in the Senate.

  Members of the Alaska Legislature are not the only state politicians who have voiced concerns about USA Patriot. The state's lone congressman recently said that he would likely co-sponsor an amendment to the federal law that would exempt bookstore and library records from scrutiny under the act.

  Young told a group of reporters that he would like to revoke some of the powers given to federal law enforcement by the act, which he voted for in October 2001.

  "I think the Patriot Act was not really thought out," Young said. "I'm very concerned that, in our desire for security and our enthusiasm for pursuing supposedly terrorists, that sometimes we might be on the verge of giving up the freedoms which we're trying to protect."

  He said he was considering co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Rep. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., called the Freedom to Read Protection Act.

  "It goes to show you I'm willing to look at the right side of an issue," Young said. "I think he's right in this issue. I don't think it's anybody's business what I'm reading in the library."

  Maverick Republicans

  Sanders' bill would exempt libraries and booksellers from the provisions of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows FBI agents to demand patron records without the individual's knowledge. It also would make it a crime for a librarian or bookstore to tell anyone that the records had been demanded.

  Under the bill, which has 105 co-sponsors including nine Republicans, bookstore and library records could still be sought by law enforcement, but only with evidence of probable cause. Though Section 215 applies to any business, Sanders' bill would only affect bookstores and libraries.

  Lynn said that it should come as no surprise that Republicans in Alaska might not closely resemble others in the party from the lower 48 states.

  "We're very independent people up here," he said."Some of the sponsors of this thing are conservative people, very conservative, but they're independent, too."

  While the resolution does not have the force of law, the legislators hope it builds support for changes.

  "A major part of American political dialogue starts at the local community and [percolates] up," Guttenberg said. "I think that the Alaksa legislature is so close to home that we just caught on to it faster than most of the country."

  Boost to the War on Terror

  Federal law enforcement sources have told ABCNEWS that successes in the war on terror would have been more difficult to achieve without the Patriot Act, which, among other provisions, allows tips gathered from foreign intelligence surveillance to be passed to police and prosecutors.

  According to one senior official, following the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI turned over 4,500 intelligence files to the Justice Department's Criminal Division to review information to seek criminal prosecutions.

  Officials said changes in foreign intelligence surveillance law under Patriot allowed authorities to make the criminal case against Sami Al-Arian, a Florida university professor indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder in Israel and the West Bank. The government alleges Al-Arian was a top leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. One official said similar prosecutions are in the works.

  Officials said that the sharing of intelligence information also allowed officials to indict the suspects responsible for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Information was obtained through e-mail traffic that was routed through U.S. Internet service providers.

  Defending the Patriot Act, officials said the "hysteria" over reports that the FBI was watching libraries was stunning. The act does not specifically mention libraries, but library records would be considered business records, which are covered in the law. One senior official said surveilling libraries would be an "enormous waste of time and would be an asinine use of FBI resources."

  ABCNEWS' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:39