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Ashcroft defends Patriot Act
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Attorney General John Ashcroft dismissed those concerns as "hysteria" and said the act gives "effective, tough tools" to law enforcement. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told a crowd of about 150 Minnesota law enforcement officials on Friday that America is winning the fight against terrorism. In the past month, Ashcroft has visited more than dozen cities around the nation, drumming up support for the Patriot Act and brushing off criticism that the act threatens civil liberties.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Rousing patriotism filled a hall at the Minneapolis hotel where Ashcroft spoke. A wounded Edina police officer led the crowd of FBI agents, police and federal prosecutors in the Pledge of Allegiance; that was followed by the national anthem.

Ashcroft stood against a backdrop of American flags and three risers of uniformed police officials including St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, Hennepin County Sheriff Pat McGowan and Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek. The public was not invited.

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Image A flag-draped event

Ashcroft told the crowd that because of the Patriot Act America is safer and freer than it was before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

"Two-thirds of "2/3 of al-Qaida's leadership worldwide is either in custody or dead. And most importantly, there've been no major terrorist attacks on American soil for over two years," he said.

Congress passed the Patriot Act shortly after the 2001 attacks. The law expanded power for searches, wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping, and access to personal and business information. Nevertheless, some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have questioned whether the law infringes on Americans' civil liberties.

Ashcroft said law-abiding citizens should not fear the Act. "If your idea of a vacation is two weeks in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, you might be a target of the Patriot Act. If you have cave-side dinners with a certain thug named bin Laden and if you enjoy swapping chemical weapons recipes from your joy of Jihad cookbook, you might be a target of the Patriot Act."

The president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen, says the expanded surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are unnecessary. She points to the criticisms brought forth by Minneapolis FBI agent and whistleblower Colleen Rowley, who testified before Congress that the FBI was so thick with bureaucracy and micromanaging that intelligence gathered at the grass roots level never made it to the agency's top echelon.

"The major problem was not a lack of government surveillance power to gather information and evidence, but rather the lack of efffective analysis and follow through on the massive amounts of information the government already had," according to Strossen.

Just this week, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association blasted Ashcroft for a particularly controversial part of the Patriot Act which allows the FBI to get secret warrants in terrorism investigations for books, records and other documents.

Ashcroft reiterated his position that the FBI hasn't used that section of the act. When asked after his speech whether he'd give up that authority if the legislation was ammended Ashcroft responded, "I think it's a tool which we may need sometime. It is very clearly safeguarded. A federal judge has to act based on very clearly defined criterion. Not only is each case scheduled for supervision by a federal judge but then any utilization has to be reported to the Congress."

"As long as the power is on the books, as long as the government has the authority to use it and to use it in secret because that's the way the law is written, then we are never going to rest assured that it's not being used against us," countered the ACLU's Nadine Strossen.

Ashcroft, however, tried to calm fears, saying that the Justice Department under his watch will perform its duties in a manner that reflects the highest standards set by the Constitution. He said he would not and will not support any change that might restrict or endanger the individual liberties of Americans.

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