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August 13, 2003
Ashcroft sets tour to defend Patriot Act
By Dan Eggen
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Faced with growing public questioning of his department's anti-terrorism policies, Attorney General John Ashcroft plans to kick off a cross-country tour next week focused on defending the USA Patriot Act and other legislation as vital tools in the fight against terror.
Justice Department officials said the series of appearances at more than a dozen stops from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City will be aimed at countering criticism from civil liberties groups and some lawmakers that authorities have gone too far in wielding anti-terrorism powers granted by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Much of the recent criticism has focused on the Patriot Act, wide-ranging legislation that dramatically strengthened the ability of the Justice Department and FBI to monitor people alleged to be terrorists or their associates. The legislation was easily approved by Congress in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks and has been praised by federal law enforcement officials as a crucial reform of outdated counterterrorism policies.
But Ashcroft's travel plans underscore growing concerns within the Bush administration over increasing criticism from Congress, opposition from cities and counties across the nation and attacks from Democratic presidential candidates.
More than 140 cities and counties, in addition to state legislatures in Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont, have approved resolutions condemning the Patriot Act and, in a few cases, refusing to enforce it. Justice officials were also blindsided last month by the House, which voted 309 to 118 to cut off funding for part of the law that allows the government to conduct ``sneak and peek'' searches of private property. The act comes up for review by Congress in 2005.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Justice Department over one provision of the Patriot Act that allows the government to seize business, library and computer records without disclosing it has done so. ``There's been a groundswell of opposition around the country to provisions of the Patriot Act that go too far in abridging civil liberties, and the Justice Department is finally reacting to this, '' said Timothy Edgar, the ACLU's legislative counsel.
Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller, have long defended the Patriot Act as crucial to the government's ability to monitor and halt would-be terrorists.
Ashcroft's itinerary has not been finalized, but is to begin with a policy speech in Washington on Aug. 19, followed by planned appearances in cities including Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City.