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US Lawmakers Divided Over Renewal of Patriot Act - 2003-10-23

Nearly two years after its passage by Congress, the sweeping anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act continues to spark fierce debate among lawmakers in Washington and throughout the United States.

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Bush six weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

Law enforcement officials argue the law has become an essential tool in the war on terrorism by making it easier for police and prosecutors to monitor suspects, conduct searches, and access intelligence about potential terrorist threats.

Christopher Wray, chief of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, recently testified in support of the Patriot Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"There are many who will gladly take the place of the September 11 hijackers, who are just as intent on killing many more innocent Americans," he said.

Mr. Wray said one of the most beneficial aspects of the Patriot Act is that it allows police and prosecutors access to intelligence information on suspected terrorists that they were previously barred from receiving.

"The Patriot Act removed the legal barrier that prevented law enforcement officials from sharing information with the intelligence and military communities," explained Mr. Wray. "Before the act, the law required these groups to form separate huddles that could not readily talk to each other, and naturally, the collective defense against terrorism was weaker than it should have been."

But critics of the Patriot Act worry that, in their zeal to stop terrorists, law enforcement agents have been given so much power that they have the potential to trample on the civil liberties of average Americans.

"Many of us are uneasy with the perception generated by the Patriot Act, namely that federal law enforcement is more powerful, more intrusive and less concerned with constitutional rights than ever before," said Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin. "This concern is shared by many Americans. In fact, a recent poll showed that 52 percent of Americans feel that the Patriot Act has gone too far in compromising constitutional rights."

In addition, a recent report by the Justice Department's Inspector General, an internal watchdog office, said a small number of the hundreds of immigrants rounded up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks have been abused while in custody.

"According to the Justice Department's own Inspector General, many of the over 750 men who were rounded up and detained on immigration violations in the aftermath of September 11 were haphazardly and indiscriminately labeled as terrorist suspects," added Senator Russ Feingold, another Democrat from Wisconsin. "But none, none were ever charged with a terrorism offense."

The Patriot Act has also drawn fire from special interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to the National Rifle Association on the right.

These groups are concerned with provisions that allow investigators to obtain medical, business or even library records as part of terrorism investigations, without notifying those who are having their records checked.

But even some Democrats sympathetic to the concerns over the civil liberties aspects of the Patriot Act say the fears may be overblown.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, says she has received more than 21,000 letters from constituents opposing the Patriot Act. But she says the complaints tend to be general, not specific, and that many are not related to the law at all.

"I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me," she said. "My staff e-mailed the ACLU, and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They e-mailed back, and said they had none."

The Patriot Act expires next year, and many in Congress are preparing for an intense debate on whether the law should be renewed.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah says he believes the Patriot Act has been both effective for law enforcement and respectful of civil liberties.

"I am sure that everyone on this committee shares the common goal to protect our country from additional terrorist attacks," said Senator Hatch. "We are all committed to this goal, and must do so with regard for fundamental freedoms and the security of our people."

That is a view echoed by one of the leading Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph Biden of Delaware.

"While portions of the act are indeed sweeping and imperfect, it represents a good faith [genuine] effort to find some compromise to [dealing with] what we all agree to be a foremost threat facing the United States of America, and that is, facing a more radicalized enemy, intent on inflicting harm on American citizens," Mr. Biden said.

But Senator Biden and other Democrats who support the Patriot Act are urging the Bush administration, and in particular Attorney General John Ashcroft, to be more forthcoming about how they are using the law to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

In recent months, nearly 200 cities and towns across the country have passed resolutions opposing the Patriot Act.

In anticipation of the congressional battle next year over whether to extend the law, Attorney General Ashcroft has been giving speeches around the country touting the law enforcement benefits of the Patriot Act.