Ashcroft: Patriot Act respects rights, improves security
(CNN) -- The controversial Patriot Act, which critics decry as an erosion of U.S. civil liberties, in fact respects Americans' rights and liberties while it strengthens the government's hand against terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft told CNN in an interview to air Thursday.
Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live," in an interview to be broadcast on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ashcroft said the Patriot Act "took down the wall" that used to exist between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, allowing them to share information more easily.
Measures like "roving wiretaps" and detaining terrorism suspects without bail are tools that have been used against drug dealers and organized criminals for years, Ashcroft said.
"Those kinds of powers and authorities have helped us, and the people deserve an opportunity to know about that," Ashcroft said.
The federal government does not "normally" monitor libraries or book purchases, Ashcroft said, responding to widespread criticism that the Patriot Act allows Big Brother-type tactics to invade the lives of law-abiding citizens.
"If we ever make an inquiry about any kind of record or business record," Ashcroft said, "it has the judicial supervision, so that a federal judge would look carefully and simply not allow it if it were not a part of a case that merited the involvement of the authorities."
While Ashcroft said in the interview that judicial oversight of the new measures is a key component of the Patriot Act, opponents disagree.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that the act in fact erodes judicial supervision, and that a proposed Patriot Act expansion, commonly known as "Patriot II," would damage oversight even more.
"It's disingenuous and wrong to say that the attorney general's expanded powers in the Patriot Act come with adequate oversight by the courts," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in response to Ashcroft's comments. "In reality, the most troubling provisions in the law make judges little more than rubber stamps in Justice Department investigations."
President Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to pass the new Patriot Act powers, which include allowing terrorist suspects to be held without bail, making it easier to subpoena records and expanding the use of the death penalty.
"They're fully consistent with the United States Constitution," Bush said in an address to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia.
The ACLU said the measures would reduce judges' discretion in granting bail and give Ashcroft more power to "unilaterally seize" the private records of citizens without judicial oversight.
But it's not just judges who make sure the law is followed in Patriot Act cases, Ashcroft said -- Congress also must make sure the cases pass muster. He said the act requires that a comprehensive report be given to Congress twice a year.
"There hasn't been any evidence of abuse, according to the most recent statements I've seen out of the Congress," Ashcroft said. "And of course, I don't believe we've had any abuse here."
The government, Ashcroft said, "should be looking for ways to improve the safety and security of American liberty."
Romero said not every defendant is being given a fair trial, and he pointed out the Justice Department continues to hold American citizens on suspicion of terrorism without charging them.
"The president needs to rein in -- not bolster -- the attorney general's insatiable appetite for new and unnecessary spying powers," Romero said.