Ashcroft stumps for Patriot Act

The attorney general embarks on an unusual nationwide tour to drum up support for the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has embarked on an unusual nationwide tour to drum up support for the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Enacted six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the law permits police to monitor e-mail and Web activity without a judge's approval in some circumstances, to obtain court orders in order to conduct secret searches of Americans' homes and offices and to browse medical and financial records without showing evidence of a crime.

Ashcroft's USA Patriot Act tour began on Wednesday morning with a speech to police at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a scheduled speech in Cleveland in the afternoon. On Thursday, he'll speak to police in Des Moines, Iowa, and Detroit.

The U.S. Department of Justice also has created a Web site that is designed to reassure Americans that the law is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday, in a kind of warm-up speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ashcroft stressed that the USA Patriot Act helped federal and local police deal with newer technologies. "For example, where before, investigators were forced to get a different wiretap order every time a suspect changed cell phones, now, investigators can get a single wiretap that applies to the suspect and various phones he uses."

"Thanks to the Patriot Act, we may deploy technology to track and develop cases against alleged terrorist operatives," Ashcroft said of the law, which has led to a groundswell of opposition from liberals, libertarians, and conservatives.

Laura Murphy, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., office, said in a statement: "Is the attorney general's road show political in nature, designed to shore up flagging conservative support in swing states, and is it prudent to have the attorney general give up his official duties to hit the huskings for an unpopular piece of legislation? Safety and freedom will both suffer if the answers are what some expect."

There is some evidence that Congress is growing unhappy with the USA Patriot Act, which was rushed through the legislature. By a 309-to-118 vote last month, the U.S. House of Representatives dismissed the entreaties of the Justice Department and blocked the part of the law that permitted police to seek a court order that let them surreptitiously enter a home or business. The amendment to the Commerce, Justice and State spending bill would not repeal the "secret search" law but instead would deny federal agencies any funds that could be used in order to take advantage of it.

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