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Senator warns of Patriot Act alarmists

Potential members of a civil liberties board are urged not to spread "disinformation" about the Patriot Act.

WASHINGTON--A Republican senator said a newly-created privacy and civil liberties watchdog panel should focus on dispelling "disinformation" about the controversial Patriot Act.

At a hearing Tuesday to consider presidential nominees to lead the group, known as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called on the two candidates to offer "honest, responsible and fair review" of the president's counterterrorism policies. He also cautioned them to be on guard for "false reports or scare tactics."

"If anything, false claims about civil liberties violations actually make it harder to monitor real civil liberties issues in the future--for the same reason that eventually no one listened to the boy who cried 'wolf,'" Cornyn told Carol Dinkins and Alan Raul.

Enacted soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act dramatically expanded the FBI's ability to conduct electronic eavesdropping and to obtain business records from telecommunications firms. Some elements of the law are being challenged in a New York appeals court, which is deciding whether to regulate the FBI's use of so-called national security letters to obtain information about Internet browsing, while other courts have curbed using the Patriot Act to track the location of cell phones without a warrant.

Elected to the Senate in 2002, Cornyn was not among the overwhelming congressional majority that approved the Patriot Act shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the former Texas attorney general has been a strong proponent of the law and has urged his colleagues to reauthorize it, as some portions are set to expire at the end of the year. In one statement, Cornyn said that if law enforcement had had the "flexibility" afforded by the Patriot Act before Sept. 11, "the probability of preventing the tragedy would have been much higher."

Cornyn and Sen. Kay Hutchison, another Texas Republican, were the only politicians present at the hearing, where they backed Dinkins and Raul, both lawyers, to be chairperson and vice chairperson of the five-member board. The candidate decision remains subject to the entire Senate's approval before taking office. President Bush announced the nominees in June.

Congress created the governmental board last year through legislation based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission. The board's broad aim is to ensure that the president and the executive branch don't expand their terrorism-fighting powers to the extent that privacy and civil liberties are unduly compromised. It is supposed to advise the president and the executive branch, to review its policies, and to submit periodic reports to Congress.

Cornyn and the nominees acknowledged that it remains unclear precisely how the board will do its work or where it will start.

"It will be quite a challenge," Dinkins said, adding that her first priority, should she become chairperson, would be tending to practical matters: employing an executive director and other staff and securing office space.

Both nominees held positions in the Reagan administration: Dinkins was the Justice Department's deputy attorney general, and Raul was an associate counsel to the president. Both have said they will continue to practice law with their respective firms--Dinkins in Texas and Raul in Washington, D.C.--even if their nominations are approved.

While Dinkins' experience centers on environmental litigation, Raul has recently dealt with technology-related cases. According to a questionnaire he submitted to the Judiciary Committee, he helped draft a brief supporting the movie industry's position in MGM v. Grokster, where the Supreme Court ruled against peer-to-peer file sharing networks. He has also been involved in a number of cases involving domain name "cybersquatting" and trademark infringement.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.