COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Bush on Thursday credited the Patriot Act with helping to convict more than 200 terrorists and dismissed accusations that the law has violated civil liberties.
Bush described scary scenarios that he said were thwarted by law enforcement and intelligence officers working together with powers granted by the law he signed six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush used the examples to pressure Congress to make permanent the provisions of the law that would otherwise expire at the end of the year. But he faces oppositions from civil libertarians who tell their own stories of law-abiding citizens dogged by secret probing of their private affairs.
The Patriot Act bolstered FBI surveillance and law-enforcement powers in terror cases and increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado for months.
Bush urged lawmakers to disregard what he called “unfair criticisms of this important good law.” He said the Patriot Act has been used to bring charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half have been convicted. He also said it has been used to break up terrorist cells in New York, Oregon, Virginia and Florida.
“For the state of our national security, Congress must not rebuild a wall between law enforcement and intelligence,” he said to an audience that included roughly 100 uniformed state troopers at the Ohio Patrol Training Academy.
Bush spent just over an hour on the ground in Ohio, a destination chosen so he could highlight the capture and conviction of Iyman Faris. Faris was a Columbus truck driver who authorities said plotted attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge and a central Ohio shopping mall.
Faris acknowledged that he met Osama bin Laden in 2000 at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and provided operatives there with sleeping bags, cell phones and other assistance.
Later, Faris received attack instructions from top terror leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, authorities said, for what they suggested might have been a second wave of terrorism to follow the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House said his arrest came after an investigation involving more than a dozen agencies working together in southern Ohio. Faris pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting terrorism and conspiracy in 2003 and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
“The case against him was so strong that Faris chose to cooperate,” Bush said. “Today instead of planning terrorist attacks against the American people, Iyman Faris is sitting in an American prison.”
Justice Department spokesman Kevin Madden said Faris was captured using powers granted under Sections 203 and 218 of the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information they have collected.
Bush said investigators on the case said they never would have even had the lead if it weren’t for the information-sharing powers of the Patriot Act.
Civil liberties concerns
Some critics of the Patriot Act have called for tempering its provisions that let police conduct secret searches of people’s homes or businesses. However, defenders of the law say no abuses have been documented, so it should be renewed intact.
Sens. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that while they cannot document any specific abuses, the law is written in a way that could allow abuses. The two are jointly pushing a bill that would scale back some of its powers.
“We do not want to end the Patriot Act. We want to mend the Patriot Act,” Durbin said.
Lisa Graves, the American Civil Liberties Union’s senior counsel for legislative strategy, said the lack of a documented case of abuse doesn’t mean the law doesn’t violate civil liberties. She said the Justice Department’s inspector general reported that 7,000 people have complained of abuse and countless others don’t even know they’ve been subjected to a search because the law requires that the searches be kept secret.
“The real problem is that these record searches take place behind closed doors and are kept secret forever,” she said. Graves said the ACLU wants the government to show evidence of a connection to terrorist activity before being allowed to search financial, medical and other records.
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