April 6, 2005 in Nation/World

Gonzales open to altering Patriot Act

Frank Davies Knight Ridder
 

At a Glance

Use of the act

» The Justice Department also released new information Tuesday on how the act has been used. Perhaps the most controversial section – allowing searches of such personal information as medical records and book selections at public libraries – has been authorized only 35 times by a special surveillance court, Gonzales said.

» He said no library, medical or gun-sale search orders had been sought under the Patriot Act, though FBI Director Robert Mueller said the FBI obtained some library records by request without using the act.

WASHINGTON – Pledging conciliation with Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told senators Tuesday that he would accept some modifications to the USA Patriot Act, but he urged that all its major provisions be renewed to effectively fight terrorism.

“Thanks in part to the act, we have dismantled terrorist cells, disrupted terrorist plots and captured terrorists before they could strike,” Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Acknowledging criticism from the right and left, Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller said they wanted to assure Congress that the act’s new search and surveillance powers had been used narrowly and not to monitor the reading habits or personal data of a broad range of people.

Gonzales also admitted that the Justice Department “took too long” to report to Congress on how the act had been used. He promised to “treat those who express concerns about the Patriot Act with respect and listen to their concerns with an open mind.”

Several members of the committee said this conciliatory approach was in sharp contrast to John Ashcroft, Gonzales’ predecessor, who refused to respond to requests for some records and once said that administration critics were indirectly helping terrorists.

“The attorney general has now announced that he too recognizes that our concerns are not so far-fetched,” said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who cast the lone Senate vote against the act, which gave the FBI broad new police and surveillance powers. “I welcome this sea change in the administration’s attitude.”

The attorney general may not have much choice in being more cooperative. When Congress passed the far-reaching Patriot Act six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it included a “sunset” provision to force a more thorough review of the new police powers.

Gonzales is the point person seeking re-enactment of 16 provisions in the bill, which would otherwise expire by the end of this year. He will also appear today before the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Democrats aren’t the only ones with qualms about the Patriot Act. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., closely questioned Gonzales and said he’d like to tighten some of the “very broad language” that allows “sneak and peek” searches in which a person isn’t told about a search until days or weeks later.

Gonzales said those special searches had been used 155 times.

The administration also must counter the coalition of groups seeking some revisions in the act, from the American Civil Liberties Union to gun-rights groups.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also announced they will introduce a bill to restrict some provisions.


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