ACLU Says Administration Using Falsehoods to Promote Patriot Act

April 19, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union took strong exception to misleading statements this morning by Deputy Attorney General James Comey on NBC’s The Today Show about the Patriot Act. Comey was on the program to promote the 2001 counter-terrorism law in advance of comments by President Bush this afternoon that included a call for Congress to remove the measure’s sunset provisions, making the entire law permanent.

During his interview, Comey said that the public harbored many misperceptions about the law. He said, “The one radical thing it did is something people don’t talk about, and that is to lower the wall between intelligence investigators and criminal investigators. The rest of it is basically giving the tools we’ve used to trace–chase drug dealers and mobsters for decades, and give them to the counterterrorism investigators.”

“The Justice Department refuses to tell the truth about the Patriot Act,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Contrary to what Comey said this morning, the sections of the Patriot Act dealing with the so-called ‘wall’ preventing information sharing are only a small part of the act.

“Also, it is fundamentally inaccurate to say that the main thrust of the law was to give to counter-terrorism investigators the same authority that they had when investigating drug dealers and mobsters,” Nojeim added. “In addition to other broad changes in the law, the Patriot Act actually expanded federal power to secretly surveil and search Americans and, in cases, weakened judicial oversight of this scrutiny.”

The ACLU called the “wall” argument a diversion, intended to deflect criticism from the Justice Department’s failures before 9/11 and from parts of the Patriot Act that reduce judicial review and other procedural checks on FBI overreaching. Comey’s statement is also part of a disturbing pattern of misleading Justice Department comments, a pattern that the ACLU documented in a report last year called “Seeking Truth From Justice: The Justice Department’s Campaign to Mislead The Public About the USA PATRIOT Act.”

Not only is Comey’s characterization of how much the Patriot Act did to break down the “wall” overblown, the ACLU said, the Patriot Act contains about a dozen provisions that are really radical changes in the law, which Congress needs to re-visit.

This morning’s interview aired as the president was preparing to travel to Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he appeared at a campaign event for Republican Senator Arlen Specter.

Specifically, the ACLU said, Comey’s argument about the “wall” glosses over the fact that the intelligence and law enforcement functions at the FBI and in the national security community generally were segregated for both legal and bureaucratic reasons.

Several administration officials have blamed the “wall” for the failure of the CIA to tell the FBI for 18 months that two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, had entered the United States. As former Attorney General Janet Reno noted in testimony before the 9/11 commission, this claim is completely false. There was no law that kept the information from being shared.

“The Patriot Act can be fixed with modest medicine,” the ACLU’s Nojeim said. “But we will never be able to ensure our safety and freedom if the administration persists in throwing up these dishonest smoke-screens.”

See the ACLU’s report on past Justice Department Patriot Act falsehoods:

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