President Bush urged the U.S. Congress on Thursday to renew major provisions of the USA Patriot Act and rejected critics who have complained the post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law erodes civil liberties.
Sixteen sections of the Patriot Act are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and the Bush administration fears their expiration will weaken law-enforcement tools needed to search for potential terrorists on American soil.
“My message to Congress is clear: The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of the year, and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act,” Bush said during a visit to the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy.
The Patriot Act was approved by overwhelming margins in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the tense weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but civil liberties groups and some members of Congress say the law has gone too far, putting American freedoms in danger.
Bush dismissed that view, and quoted a frequent administration critic, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as saying she had found no reported abuses.
“Remember that the next time you hear someone make an unfair criticism of this important good law. The Patriot Act has not diminished American liberties. The Patriot Act has helped defend American liberties,” Bush said.
Sen. Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, accused Bush of presenting a “false choice” by focusing his speech on parts of the Patriot Act that are not controversial and glossing over areas where lawmakers say it could be improved.
“He once again ignored bipartisan concerns about the Patriot Act, and presented a false choice to the American people — that we have to reauthorize the Patriot Act without any changes or leave our country vulnerable to terrorist attacks,” he said.
An ABC-Washington Post poll showed 59 percent of Americans favor extending the Patriot Act but some were growing more concerned about government intrusion on civil liberties.
Half of those polled said the government was doing enough to protect the rights of Americans during the war on terror, down from six in 10 or more during 2002 and 2003.
The American Civil Liberties Union said on its Web site that the Patriot Act needs to be changed “if Americans are to preserve our basic freedoms and protect ourselves from broad government searches of our personal records and information.”
Among the provisions opposed by civil-liberties advocates is one allowing authorities to seize library and bookstore records, which the Bush administration has defended.
Bush paid particular attention to sections of the law that permit law-enforcement and intelligence officials to work together; that permit roving wiretaps to keep up with suspects who change mobile phones to elude surveillance; and that allow Internet providers to give information to law enforcement without fear of being sued.
Bush said breaking down the barrier between law enforcement and the intelligence community enabled a joint effort that led to the FBI’s arrest two years ago of a Pakistani-born Ohio truck driver, Iyman Faris, in what was described as an al Qaeda plot to blow up New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.
Faris was sentenced to 20 years in prison for providing al Qaeda with material support, resources and information about possible targets for attack.
Lisa Graves, the ACLU’s senior counsel for legislative strategy, disputed Bush’s contention that there had been no abuses under the law. “The most offensive portion of the President’s remarks was his claim that the Patriot Act is constitutional,” she said.
A move is under way on Capitol Hill to approve the provisions in the Patriot Act that are set to expire.
Just this week the U.S. Senate intelligence committee sided with the White House, by proposing broad new subpoena powers for the FBI to use in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations.
After hours of secret deliberations, the oversight panel voted 11-4 to send to the full Senate a proposal that would give the FBI the power to subpoena without judicial approval a wide range of personal documents ranging from health and library records to tax statements.
The legislation approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence also would make permanent intelligence-related sections of the Patriot Act.