WASHINGTON: The Department of Justice is going on the offensive against critics of the USA Patriot Act, the 2001 law that augments the search and seizure powers of the US government.
Civil liberties advocates have publicly attacked the measure since its introduction in Congress following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In recent months, state governments have begun passing resolutions condemning the act, or even advising local authorities not to cooperate with federal officers operating under its authority.
But DoJ officials say such actions are based on misinformation and half-truths spread by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Attorney General John Ashcroft and department spokespeople are now aggressively speaking out to the public and the press with an eye toward setting the record straight.
"A very vocal minority has been bringing up a lot of controversy over this, so I think it's our obligation to be more proactive in clarifying exactly what the law says," explained DoJ spokesman Mark Corallo. "These tools have been available to law enforcement in grand jury proceedings, organized crime investigation, and even healthcare fraud investigations for decades."
Ashcroft used a trip last week to Alaska, one of the states to pass a resolution against the act, as an opportunity to speak out on the issue. He said it was understandable that the public would be concerned about invasions of privacy, but countered, "We use these tools to secure the liberties of our citizens. We use these tools to save innocent lives."
Not to be outdone, the ACLU has reacted by amplifying its own efforts. Last month, it launched its "Seeking Truth from Justice" campaign, which focuses on bringing to light recent DoJ statements that "mischaracterize the scope, potential impact, and likely harm of the now-notorious USA Patriot Act."
At the center of the campaign is a new report being circulated among the media detailing "factually inaccurate assertions" made recently by Ashcroft and various DoJ spokesmen.
"If the Justice Department wishes to convince the American people and their elected representatives that it carries the Constitution with it at all times during its prosecution of the war on terror, it must be conscientious with the truth," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office, in the report.
"I always tell the reporters who are calling about these stories to first of all read the law and perhaps maybe quote from the law," added Corallo. "Every one of these controversial sections is very clear and very explicit in categorizing what federal law enforcement can and can't do."