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Ashcroft goes to bat for antiterrorism law

Police officers applaud and protesters dissent as the attorney general defends the USA Patriot Act.

KATHRYN WEXLER
Published September 6, 2003

TAMPA - U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Tampa Friday as part of a nationwide tour to defend the controversial USA Patriot Act, saying the law protects civil liberties by giving authorities tools to fight terrorism.

By contrast, critics say the Patriot Act threatens civil liberties by endowing agents with power to spy at will on citizens.

In a stock speech delivered at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay on the Courtney Campbell Parkway to a ballroom crowd made up mostly of uniformed law enforcement officials, Ashcroft struck a triumphant tone, thanking them for a job well done and describing a country winning against terrorists.

"And while our job is not yet finished, we have used the tools provided in the Patriot Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people," Ashcroft said.

Shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Justice Department successfully pressed Congress to pass the Patriot Act. The law allows agents to collect more personal data than before, and in some cases, lowers the standard of proof they need to get approval to collect such information.

It also gives law enforcement agents wider use of wiretaps and allows them to keep secret their investigations.

But in the two years since the Patriot Act passed, an unusual collaboration has evolved between civil liberty defenders and conservative groups who decry it as dangerous or intrusive.

Across the street from the hotel, in front of Tanga Lounge, a clutch of protesters waved flags and homemade signs condemning the law.

"I have some grave concerns about what has been done to civil liberties and the power (the Patriot Act) gave to the U.S. attorney general," said Tanya Abilock, 26, holding a sign that said, "Dissent is Patriotic."

In a nod to critics, Ashcroft told his receptive audience that agents will not use the Patriot Act to spy without cause.

"Now, a roving wiretap does not mean that the government can rove around and listen to anyone's phone conversations," Ashcroft said. "All it means is that if a terrorist suspect moves around, changing phones as he goes, that we don't have to keep running to many different courts to keep getting the same order over and over."

He credited the Patriot Act with helping to dismantle four terrorist cells in the U.S. because it allowed agencies to share information.

Hillsborough sheriff's Chief Deputy David Gee said the Patriot Act has made it easier for his agency to work with federal agencies on certain suspects who could have terrorist links.

But Gee added a caveat, saying, "it's a good law if it's used properly and judiciously and it's not abused."

The Tampa stop was one of a dozen by Ashcroft in recent weeks, a defensive tactic to make his case before the public that the law is sound and necessary. Members of Congress in both parties have repudiated parts of the law they passed.

The House passed an amendment to the spending bill that would eliminate money for the so-called sneak and peek provision that lets federal agents collect personal data without first establishing a link to terrorism, and without the person's prior knowledge.

The Patriot Act gives agents more ability to track individuals' habits and interests, such as the books they buy and Web sites they access.

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at wexler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3383.

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