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Bush's attorney general pick a Patriot Act defender

Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey, the president's nominee to succeed Alberto Gonzales, has aired a largely favorable public view of the controversial law.

President Bush's nominee to replace departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has a history of sticking up for the electronic-surveillance powers expanded by the controversial USA Patriot Act.

That's one of the tidbits about retired federal judge Michael Mukasey that the White House is playing up--in boldface type, no less--as part of a fact sheet distributed as the president announced his pick Monday.

Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey with President Bush on Monday White House

Mukasey, a Reagan appointee with 18 years of experience as a district judge in New York, aired an apparently pro-Patriot Act position in a 2004 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that the law gave federal police vital new powers.

"I think most people would have been surprised and somewhat dismayed to learn that before the Patriot Act was passed, an FBI agent could apply to a court for a roving wiretap, if a drug dealer switched cell phones, as they often do, but not if an identified agent of a foreign terrorist organization did; and could apply for a wiretap to investigate illegal sports betting, but not to investigate a potentially catastrophic computer hacking attack, the killing of U.S. nationals abroad, or the giving of material support to a terrorist organization," he wrote. "Violations like those simply were not on the list of offenses for which wiretaps could be authorized."

Mukasey also took issue with complaints by library and civil-liberties groups about a section of the law that allows police to seek a secret court's permission to subpoena "tangible" business records, including logs of library books borrowed. (The March 2006 renewal of the Patriot Act stipulates that the section, known as Section 215, expire in December 2009.)

Although he noted that as of his writing, police hadn't even requested such records, Mukasey said library records could prove "highly relevant" in criminal investigations, such as in the case of the infamous "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski.

"Like any other act of Congress, the Patriot Act should be scrutinized, criticized and, if necessary, amended," he wrote. "But in order to scrutinize and criticize it, it helps to read what is actually in it."

The early odds of Mukasey's Senate confirmation are looking fairly good, with key Democrats voicing guarded optimism about the choice. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised the president in a statement for, in his view, not appointing "another partisan administration insider." He said Mukasey "has strong professional credentials and a reputation for independence," though he cautioned against any "rush to judgment" on the candidate.