Attorney General Ashcroft promotes antiterrorism law

Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday used the occasion of a conference on the response to the September 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon to decry critics of an antiterrorism measure enacted later that year.

"Unfortunately, some Americans have been told myths about this law, a myth that [police] can unlawfully visit local libraries and check the reading list of ordinary Americans," Ashcroft said at a conference keynote speech. Sponsored by Arlington County, Va., the conference assembled "first responders" to emergency incidents from around the nation.

Ashcroft said the USA PATRIOT Act preserved traditional checks on library, bookstore and business records because a "federal judge must first issue a warrant" and because it is for "foreign intelligence that doesn't affect U.S. persons."

Others believe that the "PATRIOT Act gives the government sweeping power to monitor individuals not suspected of having ties to terrorists," Ashcroft continued. "This is not true." Instead, he called the law a "long-overdue update to accommodate modern technology such as cell phones and the Internet."

Ashcroft reiterated what he called the need for emergency responders to cooperate with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. "Those who gather national intelligence and prosecute the nation's crimes must be able to work together," he said, again referring to the antiterrorism law, which permits a level of cooperation among spy agencies and criminal prosecutors that had not been seen for decades.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge also spoke at the conference. He said his department has begun implementing systems to ensure that security intelligence is shared with states and localities.

In addition to allowing secure dispersal of intelligence information, Ridge said, "we anticipate that local law enforcement and others will occasionally drive information up to us. It will require teamwork and partnership" to make the system work.

Ridge also spoke about the need to revamp the funding formula for first responders, which has emerged as a point of contention between Democrats and the Bush administration. Ridge said $4 billion is available to local police, fire and emergency officials through the department's Office of Domestic Preparedness, an amount in addition to the $3.5 billion allocated in fiscal 2003.

"By the end of this year, our department has asked the states and localities to submit statewide homeland security plans" rather than seeking funds on an ad hoc basis. "From the [fiscal] 2005 budget forward, the money can be expended consistent with a state coordinate-plan and driven from the local governments up."

In other remarks on the PATRIOT Act, Ashcroft emphasized its wide margins of passage-98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House-and cited comments about the legislation by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., about the need to make antiterrorism tools available for law enforcement that have existed "for years in drug and organized crime" investigations.