Ashcroft derides Patriot Act critics
No proof of abuse of power, he insists
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department escalated its attack on opponents of the USA Patriot Act yesterday, dismissing criticism of the antiterrorism law as "castles in the air" and accusing some lawmakers of ignoring classified reports that showed the government had never used its power to monitor individuals' records at bookstores and libraries.
In an unusually sharp and at times sarcastic speech to police and prosecutors in Memphis, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft labeled critics of the law "hysterics" and said "charges of abuse of power are ghosts unsupported by fact or example."
"The fact is, with just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America's libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time, nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans," Ashcroft said. "No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care. . . .
"The charges of the hysterics," he added, "are revealed for what they are: castles in the air built on misrepresentation, supported by unfounded fear, held aloft by hysteria."
Ashcroft spoke after the release of a memo he wrote disclosing that the Justice Department has never used a controversial section of the USA Patriot Act that allows authorities in terrorism investigations to obtain records from libraries, bookstores, and other businesses without notifying the subject of the probe.
That portion of the law, Section 215, had become a central focus of criticism from civil liberties groups, booksellers, and librarians and has been perhaps the most frequently cited example of potential government abuse.
By disclosing that the provision has never been used, Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials hope to neutralize much of the criticism and beat back attempts to curb the law, officials said.
The Justice Department did not disclose how many times investigators have used a similar tool, National Security Letters, to obtain business records. Sources have said that scores of such letters have been used since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The department also took aim at some members of Congress who had access to classified reports showing that the provision had never been used.
"There are members of Congress who ought to be held accountable for their statements, because they had access to this information but continually charged that abuses were taking place," said a Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo. "They knew better. . . . We hope that the release of this information will bring some rationality back to the debate."
Corallo declined to identify the lawmakers. But some of the strongest congressional criticism in recent weeks has been made in the Democratic presidential race.
In a debate in Baltimore last week, Senator John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, warned of turning over "our constitutional rights to John Ashcroft." He also decried "the notion that they are going to libraries to find out what books people are checking out, going to bookstores to find out what books are being purchased."
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Edwards had access to the reports on the use of the USA Patriot Act.
Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for Edwards, said the senator, who voted for the USA Patriot Act when it was approved in October 2001, was concerned about potential abuse of some parts of the statute.
She also said Justice Department officials have offered confusing information about the monitoring of library use.
One department official testified earlier this year that the FBI had sought records from about 50 libraries, but that most, if not all, of the requests were part of criminal investigations, not counterterrorism probes.
"The senator believes that the law gives the attorney general too much discretion in this area," Palmieri said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit challenging the government's powers to monitor such records, said its concerns had not been allayed.
"What we've always been focused on is the scope of the law itself, and that hasn't changed at all," said ACLU lawyer Ann Beeson. "They could use it tomorrow, and we would never know. And that makes it extremely dangerous."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.