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USA Patriot Act Author Supports Some Modifications of Controversial Law - 2004-01-29

The main author of the controversial USA Patriot Act, the post-September 11, 2001 legislation expanding U.S. government powers to combat terrorism, says he supports some modifications of the law.

A panel of supporters and critics of the USA Patriot Act debated the legislation after the Justice Department said Tuesday it had found no incidents in which the law had been invoked to abuse civil rights.

Earlier, a federal judge in California tossed out parts of the Patriot Act which prohibit attorneys from providing expert advice to groups that may have ties to terrorist organizations. The judge's ruling indicated that the section was constitutionally "vague."

President Bush has called on Congress to renew the counter-terrorism law which expires in 2005. The former Justice Department official, who wrote much of the Patriot Act, Viet Dinh, says the courts and Congress may have to clarify some aspects of the legislation, such as parts that deal with material support for terrorists and the use of evidence.

But Mr. Dinh also defended the legislation, which was passed by Congress soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, to expand law enforcement officials' ability to fight terrorism, increase surveillance, and encourage intelligence-sharing between agencies.

Mr. Dinh, currently a Georgetown University professor in Washington D.C., joined the New York panel discussion by telephone. He warned against diluting the Patriot Act. "I think that we can all agree that there are certain core activities that constitute material support for terrorists, which should be prohibited, and others which would not be prohibited," he said. "Congress needs to take a hard look and draw the lines very clearly to make sure that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water."

Still, critics argue that some aspects of the USA Patriot Act have led to an infringement on individuals' civil rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller on behalf of Arab and Islamic groups that say their Constitutional rights were violated when they were investigated by the government.

ACLU President Nadine Strossen says the group is calling for changes, such as requiring the government to demonstrate its suspicion of terrorist activity before obtaining personal records. "Indeed, none of us is calling for a repeal of a single provision in the USA Patriot Act," she said. "What we are calling for are amendments to particular provisions in the USA Patriot Act, amendments which we maintain are completely consistent with the legitimate, indeed compelling security needs that the government has set forward and would also protect constitutional rights and civil liberties."

During the debate sponsored by the New York Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of lawyers, opponents also argued that the USA Patriot Act has been used unfairly to investigate activity unrelated to terrorism. But supporters say the legislation has succeeded in removing some of the administrative obstacles to investigating suspected terrorists.