[ OUR OPINION ]
Scrutinize Patriot Act
before extending it
ATTORNEY General John Ashcroft has been campaigning vigorously for extension of 2001 Patriot Act powers that are due to expire next year, but the government's failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was caused more by bureaucratic inadequacies than by legal barriers the Patriot Act was intended to overcome. Testimony before the federal commission investigating the attacks does not support the need for extending Patriot Act provisions that could intrude upon the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.
Attorney General John Ashcroft testified that the government "blinded itself to our enemies" for nearly a decade before 9/11.
In his testimony, Ashcroft self-servingly blamed the Clinton administration -- and a commission member who served in Clinton's Justice Department -- for "draconian barriers" against the sharing of information between criminal investigators and those tracking suspected foreign agents. "Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology," he said.
He maintained that the restrictions were based on a faulty interpretation of the law in 1995 guidelines written by commission member Jamie Gorelick, then a deputy attorney general. The Patriot Act authorized such an exchange of information, and a secret federal court that reviews domestic intelligence wiretaps affirmed that authority.
Ashcroft described the Gorelick guidelines as faulty, noting that the court ruled that the guidelines "were required by neither the Constitution nor the law." That suggests that the Patriot Act provision was not needed, although Ashcroft's Justice Department adhered to the guidelines until the Patriot Act was enacted.
As for information technology, Louis J. Freeh, the FBI's director in the Clinton administration and into the Bush administration, told the commission staff that he had gone before Congress "twice a year begging and screaming for funds to improve the FBI's information technology infrastructure." Freeh hired IBM executive Robert Dies in 2000 to develop a computer system that Congress finally approved.
These shortcomings in the FBI's effort to protect the country from terrorist attacks had nothing to do with the lack of government authority that the Patriot Act was intended to correct. The Patriot Act was enacted in haste brought about by the Sept. 11 attacks. It should be scrutinized thoroughly before any of its provisions are extended beyond next year.
Ashcroft's strongest argument in wanting to extend the Patriot Act is that the powers it gave to the government in the fight against terrorism were "already well-understood powers in the fight against drugs and organized crime, so we weren't treading down new constitutional territory." His weakest case is that the government's need to raid bookstores and libraries to probe a person's reading habits. Congress needs to review the way the Justice Department has used or abused those powers.