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Ashcroft's dragnet

ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft arrives in Boston this morning to brief law enforcement personnel on the USA Patriot Act. The invitation-only session is part of Ashcroft's 18-city tour to defend the Patriot Act against mounting claims that it undermines civil liberties. Instead of a pep rally for officials, Ashcroft should be addressing the citizens, who have legitimate concerns about the new law. Passed 45 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, the Patriot Act is a massive overhaul of government security procedures. It includes more than 1,000 sections authorizing enhanced surveillance, reporting of suspicious activities, tighter immigration provisions, and information-sharing among intelligence agencies.

While much in the law can be justified in the fight against terror, it dangerously erodes traditional safeguards, such as judicial review, congressional oversight, and press access, which makes it difficult even to know if fundamental freedoms are being abused. And the Justice Department's own clandestine behavior regarding the act only fuels suspicions.

Of particular concern is section 215, which authorizes searches of private documents including financial, medical, and library records without a warrant, and prevents doctors, librarians, and others from informing clients that the records have been requested. Although the act seemingly carves out activities "otherwise protected by the First Amendment," a huge loophole allows the surveillance if those activities are not the "sole reason" for the search.

The law also requires the Justice Department to report its actions to the House Intelligence Committee twice a year, but the first reports have either been months late, declared classified, or heavily censored.

Ashcroft's defenders challenge skeptics to provide evidence that anyone's rights have been abused by the Patriot Act. But how could anyone tell? Too much of this law tilts the delicate balance between freedom and security the wrong way. Congress should assert its prerogatives and fix it.

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