What is the significance of Attorney General Ashcroft's latest whistle stop tour in defense of the USA PATRIOT Act? A careful review shows this latest spin campaign is consistent with an ongoing pattern of Justice Department misinformation. Over the past year FBI agents and Justice Department spokespersons have been repeating similar statements in newspaper articles, public forums and editorial pages around the country. Their main points boil down to implying that the PATRIOT Act only applies to terrorists, not citizens, and that the FBI can use these new powers only in terrorism investigations with the consent of a judge under "probable cause" standards of evidence. Oregon's former top FBI agent, Charles Matthews, was recorded saying these very things in a February forum put on by the Friends of the Ashland Library.
Incredibly, it turns out that all of these statements made by many senior FBI agents and Justice Department officials are factually and thoroughly incorrect. The truth is that the FBI can engage in searches and surveillance activities, and obtain medical, financial, library, school, and other kinds of personal records with a mere showing of "relevance" to a terrorism investigation. This is a much lower legal standard than probable cause. The persons to whom the records pertain do not even need to be themselves suspects in an investigation. Finally, a judge is required to issue a court order for release of such records without requiring that the FBI substantiate the basis for seeking the information. What this all means is that the PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to use broad new search and surveillance powers against American citizens who are not even suspected of involvement in terrorism related activities. By removing the checks and balances protections of judicial oversight the PATRIOT Act undermines the very foundations of liberty. We are left to simply trust the good intentions of the FBI.
Attorney General Ashcroft is also making unsubstantiated claims that the PATRIOT Act would definitively have prevented the 9/11 attacks. The PATRIOT Act and related Justice Department regulations have been used to justify dragnet detentions of thousands of immigrants in violation of international human rights standards. Thousands of people have been held for long periods without criminal charges and without access to attorneys or contact with families. There is actually ample evidence that law enforcement and intelligence agencies already had substantial powers that were not used effectively to thwart the 9/11 attacks. It may be true that changes to existing laws are needed to improve coordination between domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies. But the PATRIOT Act goes way too far in the direction of degrading Constitutionally protected due process of justice for citizens and immigrants alike.
For more information on these points, read the ACLU report "Seeking Truth From Justice: PATRIOT Propaganda", available at this URL: