Manassas Journal Messenger | Ashcroft hits the road

The John Ashcroft Road Show is coming to a town near you… or at least to a few selected cities in swing states for the next presidential election.

The U.S. Attorney General is hitting the road to promote the USA Patriot Act this week to curb rising criticism that the post-Sept. 11 law is giving the federal government too much authority to spy on its people while eroding civil liberties. Ashcroft will address audiences that are somewhat friendly to the law. This includes law enforcement officials while avoiding civil libertarian types.

It’s a Clinton-style campaign tour designed to improve the image of the Patriot Act heading into the next presidential election where Democrats are using Ashcroft and his tactics to get at President Bush.

It also appears that Ashcroft is seeking public approval after-the-fact.

Congress approved the massive Patriot Act in the jittery weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The attacks exposed massive shortfalls in our foreign and domestic intelligence gathering agencies.

While there were (and still are) massive shortcomings in America’s immigration and airline safety policies, the Patriot Act aimed to ensure that the U.S. government doesn’t get caught flat-footed again. Over time, however, it’s the American people who lose out while terrorists simply look for the weakest link in our defenses.

While Americans fear another massive terrorist attack, Americans should also be concerned about the long-term erosion of the same liberties and government limitations granted to us with the founding of our nation.

Ashcroft began his tour by touting the efforts taken under the Patriot Act saying had the same law been enacted prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the result may have been different.

For example: The act removes wire tap limitations allowing agents to listen to the phone conversations of a specific person rather than a single phone number. This is supposed to allow agents to track suspected terrorists who often change cell phones, but such loose wiretapping provisions without specific safeguards can easily be used to cast a wide net for “suspicious” activity.

Yes, it’s imperative that we find terrorist regardless of whether they’re working here or abroad. But the Patriot act plants the seeds for the government to spy on the innocent.

The Justice Department attempted to add more provisions to the current law this year, including the “sneak and peak” provision that would have allowed the government to covertly search a home or business, remove records and leave surveillance devices that record every key stroke on a computer. All this could have been done without the person’s knowledge. Luckily, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress had sense to vote down this provision overwhelmingly.

Most provisions in the Patriot Act are set to expire in 2005 – the year after the next presidential and congressional elections. Congress should hold hearings to investigate what provisions are helpful and which are overkill.

As we’ve said before, the current administration could have the best intentions for the Patriot Act. If such drastic measures are left on the books in perpetuity, however, someone will eventually use them in a way that is not in the best interest of the American people.

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