Civil Liberties

Selling PATRIOT

Propaganda from Ashcroft

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In July, the Department of Justice released "Report from the Field: The USA PATRIOT Act at Work," a 29-page effort to persuade its critics that the controversial PATRIOT Act, passed in 2001, is both necessary to fight terrorism and unlikely to undermine American liberties. But a close reading of the report suggests the opposite is true.

In addition to citing terrorism-related uses of the PATRIOT Act , the report celebrates the law's usefulness in catching hackers, child pornographers, kidnappers, child molesters, online scam artists, and at least one person accused of planning a "Columbine-style" school shooting. These examples reinforce the worries of many civil libertarians that law enforcement powers sold to the public as special anti-terror measures would more often be used in ordinary criminal cases.

One case, a hacker's attempt to extort money from the National Science Foundation, is dubiously described as a "cyber-terrorist threat." The report also implies that the hacker might have been able to shut down life support for scientists at the South Pole, although the FBI later made it clear that there was no such danger. National Science Foundation sources told Newsweek the PATRIOT Act was not vital to the case's resolution.

The report is silent on some of the most controversial PATRIOT Act provisions. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kevin Bankston, who calls the report "propaganda, a fluff document, not an informational document," notes that there is no mention of Section 215, which allows the government to demand business records. Nor does it cite the "sneak and peek" provisions in Section 213, which authorize delayed-notification searches.

Bankston argues that the report fails to prove the PATRIOT Act was really necessary in the cases for which it was used. He notes that pre-existing "emergency situations" laws allow law officers to gather information rapidly when there is imminent threat to life or limb. "The only real benefit they can cite is that it allows them to move faster, and the reason it allows them to move faster is that they're subject to less oversight," says Bankston. "If that's the only argument, we might as well scrap the entire warrant requirement, because those pesky warrants waste an enormous amount of time."