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Repost of AP article - folks, we need intel - where, when, etc. Let's get organized!!
August 19, 2003

Ashcroft will lead effort on Patriot Act
By Eric Lichtblau
The New York Times

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, facing increasing criticism of its antiterrorism policies, is beginning an unusual counteroffensive this week to shore up support for the USA Patriot Act, which grew out of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The pitch man for the campaign-style initiative is Attorney General John Ashcroft, a politically divisive figure who plans to deliver more than a dozen speeches around the country beginning today in defense of the administration's antiterrorism efforts. The initiative will take Ashcroft to states that are considered central to Bush's 2004 re-election effort and where some political strategists say the administration's tough antiterrorism tactics play well.

The Patriot Act, as the sweeping legislation passed after 9-11 is known, has been a cornerstone of the administration's antiterrorism policy, giving law enforcement agents expanded powers to identify, track and apprehend suspects.

But the legislation has also become a target in recent months. The Republican-led House voted overwhelmingly last month to repeal a key provision on the use of surveillance; 152 communities have passed resolutions objecting to the legislation because of what some saw as its Big Brother overtones; and civil liberties groups are suing to have parts of the law struck down as unconstitutional.

The increasing opposition to the measure has clearly thrown the White House on the defensive, according to people close to the administration. Ashcroft, though often criticized by liberal and conservative policy-makers, is seeking to solidify support for the law.

``The administration realizes that Ashcroft is a bit of a lightning rod,'' said a prominent Republican consultant. ``He has his down sides, but not in the realm of prosecuting terrorism and protecting national security. He works well in that area.''

Over the next month the attorney general will promote the law as an effective tool against terrorism before law enforcement organizations and conservative groups in such states as Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Two of the cities that Ashcroft will visit , Philadelphia and Detroit, have passed resolutions opposing the act. But Justice Department officials said political calculations did not factor into the attorney general's itinerary.

``The majority of American people are clearly supportive of our counterterrorism efforts, including the use of the Patriot Act,'' said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman. ``It's important that after months of misinformation being spread by a small but vocal minority inside the Beltway that we go out beyond Washington and talk to people in law enforcement and let them know that their efforts are appreciated.''

Viet Dinh, a former Justice Department official who helped draft the Patriot Act, said that Ashcroft's agenda would be ``to correct the misperceptions that are out there and to disabuse the American public of the misinformation they've gotten.''

The themes will be similar to those that Ashcroft and top aides have voiced for months - that the Patriot Act is essential to fight terrorism and that critics have distorted what the law does to make it seem more onerous than it really is. But the current initiative underscores the urgency of a political debate that many Republicans and Democrats say they believe the administration is losing.

Rep. C.L. Otter, R-Idaho, who sponsored last month's amendment in the House repealing a surveillance power in the Patriot Act, said in an interview on Monday that he viewed the campaign by Ashcroft as an effort ``to try to reclaim the ground that the Justice Department has lost.''

Otter, who voted against the act in October 2001, said he thought it was a mistake for Congress to move ahead with it just weeks after the 9/11 attacks at the administration's urging. The legislation gave law enforcement agents dozens of new tools for wiretapping and following terrorism suspects and probing their financial and personal records, and it made it easier for law enforcement and intelligence officials to share information they obtained in their inquiries.

``The smoke was still coming out of the rubble in New York City when we passed the law,'' Otter said. ``I think there's a sense in Congress now that maybe we moved too far too fast.''

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, agreed.

``Among conservatives, more and more people are saying that the Patriot Act oversteps the powers that government needs,'' Keene said. ``The mood in Congress has clearly changed since the law was passed after 9/11, and I think the attorney general is trying to reverse that trend.''

The debate over balancing counterterrorism demands against civil liberties has shaped issues including law enforcement budgets and the government's ability to monitor people's reading habits, and it will become even more pressing as the expiration of some parts of Patriot Act nears in 2005.

Some Republican congressional leaders have hinted that they want to introduce legislation expanding powers granted under the act.

They have also sought to extend the life of the law by removing the so-called sunset provisions, only to be beaten back by concerns from civil libertarians in Congress who say the legislation needs greater scrutiny.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Monday that only by backing away from efforts to repeal the sunset provisions and giving Congress more complete information could Ashcroft ``begin repairing the unease'' over the Patriot Act.

Both Democrats and Republicans said that Ashcroft could prove either an asset or a liability for the administration in pushing greater acceptance of the measure.

His stance on social issues appeals to what Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, called ``the hard-core, right-wing, rabble-rousing base.''

He has also drawn criticism in part because of what critics see as his confrontational approach and his conservative politics.

Ashcroft has angered some lawmakers by suggesting that critics who raised civil liberties concerns were soft on terrorism, and he urged prosecutors not to shrink from their duties in the face of ``slings and arrows in the public arena.''

But even some critics say Justice Department officials appear to have become more responsive to their concerns about the civil liberties implications of the Patriot Act and their repeated demands for information on how it is used.

``People are still concerned, but at least they've finally gotten around to giving us some actual answers,'' said a Republican congressional aide. ``The suspicions have come when they refused to provide answers. That's when people think they must have something to hide.''