Ashcroft defends Patriot Act

USA Patriot Act information Web site

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"Learning to share"

Law enforcement officials can use better technology to communicate with one another and investigate suspected terrorists because of the USA Patriot Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today.

"We have used the tools provided to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people," he said in speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where he defended the act and outlined its benefits.

The Patriot Act was passed in October 2001 to improve law enforcement agencies' ability to battle terrorism, officials said. "The cause we have chosen is just," Ascroft said. "The course we have chosen is constitutional."

But many privacy groups believe the measure encroaches on civil liberties and gives law enforcement agencies too much power.

In his speech, Ashcroft referred to a recently released congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which outlines weaknesses in law enforcement. It says law enforcement officials have relied on "outdated and insufficient technology" in the fight against terrorists, he said.

The act gave officials the ability to conduct electronic surveillance to investigate terrorism-related crimes, and it expanded the use of wire taps by allowing an agent to use so-called "roving" wire taps in which a single order lets agents track suspects using several phones, rather than having to obtain permission for each, Ashcroft said. The act also allows a person to request law enforcement to monitor their computers for trespassers, officials said.

"When terrorists had bested us with technology, communications and information, we found the tools necessary to preserve the lives and liberty of the American people," Ashcroft said.

The report states that law enforcement failed to communicate information about the Sept. 11 hijackers. This lack of coordination has "roots deep in the culture of government," said Ashcroft, who characterized the Patriot Act as a long-overdue aid for law enforcement.

"If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before Sept. 11 rather than six weeks after the attacks," he said.

Ashcroft also announced a new Web site with information about the act, including speeches, congressional support for the act and a section for "dispelling the myths" about the act. "It is critical for everyone to understand what the Patriot Act means in our success in the war against terrorism," he said.

The Patriot Act improved law enforcement capabilities by giving investigators the ability to share information among local, state and federal law enforcement. It removed legal walls that prevented communication, Ashcroft said.

"It gave the government the ability to connect the dots," he said.

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