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Ashcroft defends Patriot Act

Evidence shows need to extend the law, he says

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Attorney General John Ashcroft holds up a copy of "Report from the Field: The USA Patriot Act at Work" at a news conference Tuesday.

Attorney General John Ashcroft holds up a copy of “Report from the Field: The USA Patriot Act at Work” at a news conference Tuesday.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Attorney General John Ashcroft launched another defense of the USA Patriot Act on Tuesday, echoing President Bush's claims that the law that gave federal agents more latitude to spy on U.S. citizens and foreigners has made Americans safer.

With Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner at his side during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Ashcroft waved a Justice Department report he said proved that the law's most controversial provisions should be renewed before they expire in December 2005.

"The report provides a mountain of evidence that the Patriot Act continues to save lives," the attorney general said.

Passed hurriedly by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act significantly expanded the power of U.S. law enforcement by allowing the FBI and CIA to share evidence. The act also gave terrorism investigators access to evidence-gathering tools that agents in criminal inquiries have used for years.

But civil libertarians and conservative Republicans say the law needs to be reworked to provide more oversight by judges of its provisions that make it easier for investigators to search for and seize evidence.

Ashcroft and Sensenbrenner's defense of the law came a week after House Republicans narrowly defeated a measure that would have limited the FBI's ability to obtain public library records.

Since his State of the Union address in January, Bush has portrayed the Patriot Act as a linchpin in his anti-terrorism efforts, and he has insisted that Congress renew 16 provisions that will expire next year.

In recent weeks, Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general, and Larry Mefford, a former top FBI counterterrorism official, have campaigned for Bush to tout the act.

Treasury Secretary John Snow joined in Tuesday. "Renewal of the act is one of the most important steps we can take to defeat the (terrorist) killers," he said in a speech in Cleveland.

Under the act, the Justice Department must report to Congress twice a year on how often it has used the law's provisions. But the document Ashcroft released Tuesday is not an official report to Congress. Instead, it is a series of case studies, most of which have been reported by the media.

Ashcroft's report does not say how many times public libraries have been asked by the FBI to turn over patrons' reading records in terrorism or intelligence investigations.

It does not say how often FBI agents have asked judges to delay telling people that their homes have been secretly searched by U.S. agents in criminal inquiries.

Nor does it say how many times U.S. agents have received court orders for "roving" wiretaps in terrorism or intelligence investigations without specifying a subject's full name or listing all of the communication devices the subject uses.

But Ashcroft's report cites several instances in which the law's electronic surveillance and seizure provisions have been used in ordinary criminal investigations to bust alleged child pornographers and disrupt credit card fraud.

Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Ashcroft should not be criticized for "cherry-picking" cases that emphasize the Patriot Act's virtues. The Wisconsin Republican said the law's critics are doing the same thing.

American Civil Liberties Union officials have been among the law's most vocal critics. Executive Director Anthony Romero said Tuesday that Ashcroft has "sidestepped some of the most serious concerns raised about the Patriot Act, for partisan purposes."

Romero said Bush and Ashcroft "need to spend less time waging public relations campaigns and more time responding to the specific, legitimate concerns of the American people."