Fran Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, recently told the American Bar Association that the White House encouraged a wide-ranging “honest” debate over renewing the USA Patriot Act but that White House support for renewing the act intact is “unequivocal,” meaning the administration has no intention of listening to the act’s many critics.

And if their criticism was too harsh, Townsend said, why, that would be “partisan politics” and “unnecessary rhetoric.” The act, we’re told, is perfect as it is.

Later, Townsend veered off into those slippery legalisms that often make it so hard to believe this administration. She says she asked an audience how many believe there is a “library records provision” in the act and, “probably 70 percent of the hands went up. And people were really stunned that there is nowhere in the Patriot Act the mention of library records.”

That’s technically true in a weasely legalese sort of way, but the actual language is worse. The FBI can obtain secret “sneak and peek” warrants for “books, records, papers, documents and other items,” like stuff lifted off your computer, just about anywhere they want to search, home, office, school, hospital and, yes, Ms. Townsend, libraries. It might not hurt to tighten up on the circumstances and authority under which these secret warrants are obtained.

If she’s genuinely interested in improving the act and can bring herself to talk to critics, she might turn to the ACLU, which is seeking under the Freedom of Information Act to determine whether the administration is using a Patriot Act provision to arbitrarily deny visas to foreign academics. The act allows the administration to deny visits by “persons of prominence” who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” However, often it appears that espousing terrorist activity means espousing ideas the administration doesn’t like.

For reasons the administration won’t explain, it denied visas to a Muslim scholar and Swiss citizen just as he was about to take up a teaching post at Notre Dame and to a former Nicaraguan Sandinista official just as she was to take up a teaching post at Harvard Divinity.

These are indeed “persons of prominence” who set off for this country with high expectations only to be harshly rebuffed, and when back home they’ll have a lot to say, probably little of it good. No amount of happy spin from Karen Hughes at State will change that.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)