Leahy defends sunset provisions in Patriot Act

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy says he will actively fight any effort by the Bush administration to maintain key provisions of the USA Patriot Act that are scheduled to expire in about two years. Leahy says he’s concerned that Attorney General John Ashcroft is warning that allowing the provisions to be phased out could lead to more terrorist attacks in this country.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) In the course of the next month, the attorney general is scheduled to visit a number of states promoting an extension of the USA Patriot Act – a law that provides law enforcement officers with greater power to deal with suspected terrorists. The law was passed in the months following the terrorist acts of September 11.

Leahy, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, fought hard to make sure that certain provisions of the law, particularly those dealing with search and seizure, would expire at the end of 2005.

This week, Ashcroft said efforts to sunset these provisions were a mistake that “would senselessly imperil American lives and American liberty.” Leahy says he’s very disappointed that the attorney general has framed the debate over this issue in this way:

(Leahy) “He talks about, if you criticize him in any way you’re somehow helping the terrorists. Well that’s absurd. He has a constitutional right to say anything he wants, no matter how foolish it might be, he’s exercising his constitutional rights by saying foolish things. In this country we should be able to raise criticisms, we should be able to raise questions.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s most concerned that the administration has failed to be accountable for some of the most invasive procedures that have been used to fight terrorism:

(Leahy) “I think that sometimes we see what’s happened when they’ve used these secret powers – a lot of innocent people have been rounded up, their lives have been ruined. And then after several months they say, ‘Whoops, sorry we got the wrong person, too bad about that, there’s not much you can do about it.’ Well that’s not the way we do things in America. We can fight terrorism and we can protect against terrorism but we also have to protect and make sure that our own government doesn’t operate against innocent people.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s convinced that a majority of members of both the House and the Senate will oppose efforts by the Bush administration to expand the USA Patriot Act when Congress returns to Washington next month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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