Secretive USA Patriot Act Is Difficult To Judge

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How should Americans evaluate the USA Patriot Act? It’s difficult to tell, the Washington Post reports. “The problem is, we don’t know how [the law] has been used,” said law Prof. David Cole of Georgetown University, who has represented terror suspects.. “They set it up in such a way . . . [that] it’s very hard to judge.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft asserts that the act is crucial to government’s fulfilling its anti-terror responsibilities, but he says little about how it accomplishes those tasks.

Two lawsuits have been filed challenging the Patriot Act’s central provisions. The Republican-led House startled the administration in July by voting to halt funding for a part of the law that allows more delays in notifying people about searches of their records or belongings. The GOP chairmen of the two committees that oversee the Justice Department have warned Ashcroft that they will resist any effort, for now, to strengthen the law.

Ashcroft has said that he personally authorized 170 emergency orders to conduct surveillance, allowing investigators 72 hours before they must seek permission from a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Under the Patriot Act, investigators can go before the court in cases that are primarily criminal as long as they have some foreign intelligence aspect. Ashcroft told the committee that those 170 emergency FISA orders represented three times as many as had been authorized before Sept. 11, 2001 — but he did not disclose how many of them had involved terrorism. Nor has the department said how often it has used FISA court orders to search libraries, the realm that has provoked perhaps the strongest negative reaction. The Justice Department’s interest in libraries revolves around their public computers, where terrorists could communicate without detection. As for how many times the government has used the law’s powers to enter a library, a Justice official said, “Whether it is one or 100 or zero, it is classified.”


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