Justice Department Kicks Off PATRIOT Act Roadshow; ACLU Doubtful Public Relations Offensive Will Change Minds

August 19, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In response to the Justice Department’s launch today of a multi-city public relations “”roadshow”” promoting the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the tour’s closure to the public, presumably intended to squelch protests, and questioned the agency’s use of public money to counter broad public concern about the expansive surveillance powers in the law.

“”An Attorney General going on the road, away from his official duties, to favorably spin policies violative of civil liberties is troubling, to say the least,”” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “”It raises two serious questions: is this tour — which incidentally hits Iowa, Michigan and Ohio – political in nature and how prudent is it to be spending public money on a ‘PATRIOT Act’ charm offensive?””

The PATRIOT Act tour comes in the midst of rapidly growing public concern about portions of the 2001 law, which was passed with little debate shortly after the September 11 attacks. In recent months, the Department of Justice has been roundly criticized for this legislation and its questionable record on civil liberties in the post-9/11 era.

Last month Republican Rep. C.L. “”Butch”” Otter (R-ID), from the conservative heartland, sponsored an amendment to a key spending bill prohibiting the implementation of a section of the law facilitating federal agents’ use of secret “”sneak and peek”” searches, which permit a delay in notification that a search was conducted. Also in Congress, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden recently introduced a bill to narrow other sections of the law, and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) sponsored a bill to roll back Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which allows the FBI to access Americans’ library records without showing probable cause. In addition, the ACLU filed the first-ever challenge to the PATRIOT Act, which also deals with Section 215.

Across the United States, more than 150 communities – including three states – have passed local government resolutions calling for a fix to troubling sections of the PATRIOT Act. And, while the Department of Justice continues to downplay the resolutions drive as the product of “”liberal college towns,”” communities as disparate – and conservative – as Castle Valley, Utah; Carrboro, North Carolina, and the inimitably independent state of Alaska have passed broadly popular pro-civil liberties measures.

One of the primary concerns with the tour, the ACLU said, is that it might be designed to prop up other politically ailing legislative initiatives, including the expansive sequel to the PATRIOT Act, known as PATRIOT II, or the new VICTORY Act, which contains four PATRIOT II provisions. Lawmakers and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum, including conservative mainstays like the American Conservative Union and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, oppose both pieces of legislation.

“”Although the Department of Justice is understandably reluctant to admit it, the real significance of this roadshow is that it shows the PATRIOT Act is becoming a kitchen table issue,”” Murphy said. “”Of course Americans want to be safe, but they also want – and deserve – to be free.””

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