Justice Department Struggles to Retain Control of Patriot Act

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the final stretch for the Bush Administration to keep the controversial Patriot Act intact before sections of it are slated to expire, the Justice Department stood before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday with a 29-page report detailing the reasons why the Act is essential to the "war on terror."

Just over a dozen key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on Dec. 31, 2005, and already the issue is being used as a campaign flagship by President Bush.

However, according to reports, many portions of the Patriot Act have no expiration date and will continue to enforce government related investigations indefinitely.

Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed the case before Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) that the Patriot Act continues to "save lives," and that it is al Qaeda's "worst nightmare."

Ashcroft's presentation included a compilation of dozens of "real life" cases from across the country in which the FBI and other law enforcement officials have used the "tools of the Patriot Act to protect America's families and communities, and even to save lives."

He was also quick to sell the legitimacy of the Patriot Act as being a weapon "across the board" against child molesters and pornographers, although Ashcroft did not detail the Justice Department's progress in that arena.

The Patriot Act was originally drafted immediately following the September 11 terrorist act in 2001 and was reportedly approved by Congress so quickly that the majority of lawmakers barely had time to read the 342-page document that many critics equate to the actualization of a "Big Brother" role for the U.S. Government over its people.

The Patriot Act gave sweeping new powers to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies involving cyber sleuthing, wiretapping surveillance, domestic security, border patrol, and "removing obstacles to the investigation of terrorism."

The government's definition of the Act at the time of its assembly is defined as setting the standards to "deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes."

The shady and yet-undefined reference to "other purposes" continues to raise the ire of many political organizations who feel that the government has granted itself the power to override the terms of the U.S. Constitution for its own convenience, even giving the FBI the power to spy on individual's activities online and offline without a court order.

Just last week, congress let slide an amendment to the Patriot Act that would have prevented the FBI and other law enforcement agencies from spying on library and bookstore preferences and purchases.

According to those who attended Ashcroft's presentation, the attorney general did little to address the mounting concerns of civil liberties groups, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation who are both currently involved in lawsuits challenging the validity of the Act and the way in which the government is fighting to keep it intact.

However, Ashcroft pushed the case this week that the Patriot Act is so far responsible for terrorism investigations that have led to charges against hundreds of individuals, with 179 convictions to date.

"Let me be clear about something before I move on," Ashcroft said before the Judiciary Committee. "Congress intended that the Patriot Act be used to save lives from terrorist attacks. In fact, there are a number of provisions that are only to be used to prevent terrorism or foreign spying."

"We are a nation at war. That is a fact. Al Qaeda wants to hit us and hit us hard. We have to use every legal weapon available to protect the American people from terrorist attacks," Ashcroft stated. "By tearing down the wall between law enforcement and the intelligence community, we have been able to share information in a way that was virtually impossible before the Patriot Act."

According to reports, a sequel to the Patriot Act, the Patriot II, is being drafted and would contain even broader provisions.

To date, three states and a growing number of counties and municipalities have expressed disapproval of the Patriot Act.