ACLU Says Ashcroft Speech Obscures True Threat of PATRIOT Act

August 19, 2003 12:00 am

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Remarks of Laura W. Murphy,
Director — ACLU Washington Legislative Office


Laura Murphy

WASHINGTON – We need to be vigilant in the face of terrorism. The ACLU’s headquarters are less than 10 blocks from Ground Zero and every member, supporter and employee fears a new era of terrorism. However, every American of democratic spirit also fears a day when the threat of terrorism needlessly saps our basic free traditions.

Because of this desire for both safety and freedom, there is a growing sense among regular Americans of all political stripes – from the most right-wing to the most left – that the PATRIOT Act went too far, too fast. Instead of merely taking rational, judicious steps to update and improve our federal police and intelligence resources, it overreaches by eroding basic checks and balances against White House and cabinet-agency power, at the expense of the people’s representatives in Congress and the bulwark of our rights, the courts.

Moreover, when the Attorney General makes the unsubstantiated claim that the PATRIOT Act would have definitively prevented the 9/11 attacks, he also obscures another key point: the USA PATRIOT Act isn’t just about terrorism. As the New York Times reported, it’s been used – over the objections of the State Department – to seize funds stolen by American con artists and stashed in overseas accounts.

By the Attorney General’s own admission to the Judiciary Committee, the Act is actively being applied in non-terrorism related investigations, even though terrorism was the sole justification for the bill for most of the lawmakers who voted for it.

The Attorney General has suffered many public relations setbacks in the past months. Operations TIPS, the Justice Department internal Inspector General report disclosing systematic abuses of the non-citizens held in the months after 9/11 and the latest conservative backlash against anti-terrorism provisions, which they worry could be used against law-abiding right-wing activists, are all great reasons for the Attorney General to go out on the road.

Given all this, we need to ask ourselves several questions. Most importantly, is the Attorney General’s roadshow political in nature, designed to shore up flagging conservative support in swing states and is it prudent to have the Attorney General give up his official duties to hit the hustings for an unpopular piece of legislation? Safety and freedom will both suffer if the answers are what some expect.

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