Ashcroft's Whistle-Stops

Attorney General John Ashcroft and civil libertarians have been at odds over some provisions of the Patriot Act - the anti-terrorism law passed by a strong majority in Congress six weeks after 9/11.

This week Mr. Ashcroft and the Justice Department launched an offensive, insisting the act provides the tools to better defend the country against the terrorist threat. Mr. Ashcroft is taking his campaign on the road; he'll speak to law-enforcement officials in some 18 cities across the United States.

He has plenty of convincing to do. While the Patriot Act certainly has accomplished much - especially in breaking down walls between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies - it arguably infringes on rights that Americans hold dear.

To date, some 150 local governments and at least three states have passed resolutions condemning the act for infringing on civil liberties. Last month, the US House voted to prevent Justice from spending money to use a Patriot Act provision that allows federal agents to conduct unannounced "sneak and peek" searches of homes and businesses. The bill passed on a 309-to-118 vote.

Booksellers and librarians have a legitimate concern, too. The Patriot Act allows the government to obtain a search warrant to seize their records of customer purchases or borrowed books - without showing probable cause, and without revealing that the inspection occurred.

Mr. Ashcroft deserves credit for his efforts to correct misinformation about the law. But the administration will have to make a better case to the American public and Congress - addressing the mounting specific criticisms of the bill, not just vaguely hyping its successes.

The Patriot Act may well have allowed government to better keep terrorism at bay. But it is time for a more thoughtful, reasonable discussion of how the act can be adjusted to better balance security and liberty.

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