Baltimore Sun Editorial | Conservative Backlash

Sunday, 24 August 2003 02:10 by: Anonymous

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     Conservative Backlash
     Baltimore Sun | Editorial

     Friday 22 August 2003

     JOHN ASHCROFT must be sweating bullets.

     A grass-roots drive to resist the attorney general's 0abroad expansion of police powers in the name of fighting terrorism has picked up 0aso much support in the American heartland it threatens not only repeal of the 0alegislation but political damage to President Bush as well.

     Try as he might, Mr. Ashcroft can no longer dismiss 0aopponents of the USA Patriot Act as a small but whiny band of liberals. Some of 0athe nation's top conservative groups as well as a huge majority of the 0aRepublican-led House of Representatives -- in other words, the Bush base -- are 0anow leading the drive to eliminate portions of the law that allow secret spying 0aon anyone.

     So the attorney general is out stumping in the 0apresidential battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, as well as 0athe first caucus state of Iowa, trying to sell the Patriot Act as vital to the 0awar on terrorism while a Justice Department Web site seeks to dispel "myths" put 0aout by critics.

     This spin control performance is offensive both in 0aits message and its tactics. Mr. Ashcroft, who bullied Congress into granting 0alaw enforcement agencies sweeping new powers while the nation was still 0atraumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks, is once again using fear to get his way.

     Most outrageously, he asserts that the nation is "safer" now because of the broader police powers and that "if we knew then what 0awe know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before Sept. 11."

     Well, perhaps -- if the FBI, so hidebound, so 0arisk-averse and so technologically outmoded that it ignored many clues within 0aits grasp, would somehow have been transformed. But the new police powers in the 0aPatriot Act don't fix any of that.

     In his stump speech, Mr. Ashcroft doesn't address 0athe concerns that have inspired three states and 154 local governments, 0aincluding Baltimore, to pass resolutions in protest of the Patriot Act. Among 0athese is the power granted to police to secretly obtain records of phone calls, 0aInternet use, library visits and other personal information without probable 0acause of criminal activity.

     Lawmakers also worry about "sneak and peek" searches 0aof homes and property, about which targets learn much later.

     The Justice Department's Patriot Act Web site (www.lifeandliberty.gov) maintains that "terrorism investigators have no 0ainterest in the library habits of ordinary Americans" and that searches must be 0asecret so terrorist don't get tipped off. But Patriot Act powers are not limited 0ato terrorism investigations.

     Mr. Ashcroft speaks only to selected audiences not 0aopen to the public. He wants U.S. attorneys in each state to take questions in 0atown meetings, trying to use prosecutors as lobbyists. Thomas M. DiBiagio, the 0aU.S. attorney for Maryland who considers himself politically independent, has no 0asuch plans.

     The Ashcroft road show seems likely to backfire, and 0aactually fuel the drive for a thorough review by Congress of the Patriot Act to 0aweed out its onerous parts. Mr. Ashcroft should be weeded out as well.

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