Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON – The Patriot Act has helped law enforcement officials nab terrorists and solve crimes, according to a Justice Department report sent to Congress on Tuesday in an attempt to shore up wavering support for the law.

Attorney General John Ashcroft called the Patriot Act “al-Qaida’s worst nightmare.” But the 29-page report showed that the law – an expansion of police and surveillance powers touted as a cornerstone in the Bush administration’s legal war on terrorism – also has been used in regular criminal cases, such as child pornography and kidnapping.

The report made no mention of two of the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions, which allow FBI agents to search library records and conduct secret “sneak and peek” searches, which require warrants but no prior notification.

Critics seized on those omissions and accused Ashcroft of handpicking cases that helped make his case supporting the law.

“The attorney general has sidestepped some of the most serious concerns raised about the Patriot Act, for partisan purposes,” charged Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union’s executive director.

The report is part of a push by the Bush administration to rally support for the Patriot Act after a key part of the law was nearly overturned last week in the House of Representatives. Republican leaders were barely able to fight back an amendment that would have weakened the law by removing the ability of FBI agents to obtain library and bookstore records.

Appearing in Cleveland on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary John Snow called on Congress to renew the Patriot Act, portions of which expire in 2005. Snow said the law, which strengthened the government’s anti-money-laundering powers, has been instrumental in choking off funding for terrorists.

President Bush also has called for Congress to renew the Patriot Act.

Tuesday’s report provided snapshots of 36 cases in which the Patriot Act had been used successfully. Much of the act’s use has been shrouded in secrecy, with the Justice Department often providing only bare-bones statistics. Tuesday’s report provided the most detailed glimpse to date of how the law has been used since it sailed through Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the terrorism front, the report said the Patriot Act’s information-sharing provisions led to high-profile arrests and guilty pleas from members of alleged terrorist sleeper cells in Lackawanna, N.Y., and Portland, Ore. The law was used to help make a case against Sami al Arian, a University of South Florida professor who’s awaiting trial on charges of funneling money and support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The law also has been used to solve credit card-fraud cases, school bomb threats, illegal weapons sales and other more run-of-the-mill crimes.

A portion of the law that allowed investigators to obtain information from Internet service providers more easily has been particularly helpful in cracking several child-pornography rings, the Justice Department said.

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In 2003, Indiana State Police used Patriot Act powers to help arrest a man for molesting his 13-year-old daughter and posting explicit photos of her online, the report said.

In Wisconsin, an 88-year-old woman abducted and held for ransom was recovered with the help of Patriot Act powers that allowed agents to get information quickly from Internet service providers.

“I just don’t think this represents a catalog of abuse. I don’t think it represents a single instance of abuse,” Ashcroft said responding to critics who’ve portrayed the Patriot Act as an assault on civil liberties.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Ashcroft had chosen only those cases he wanted seen. “This entire report is suspect,” Conyers said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who appeared with Ashcroft on Tuesday, said the Patriot Act had saved lives, and he accused its critics of hypocrisy.

“The people who criticize the Patriot Act cherry-pick their contentions the same way,” the Wisconsin Republican said.



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PATRIOTACT

AP-NY-07-13-04 1848EDT



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