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WASHINGTON � The Ashcroft Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union don’t find themselves on the same side of many issues � least of all the USA Patriot Act. Yet the DOJ and the ACLU Web sites devoted to the controversial law share an ironic symmetry. On the DOJ site, a banner reads “Preserving Life and Liberty.” On the ACLU site, the motto is “Keeping America Safe and Free.” Liberty. Security. Life. Freedom. It’s easy to get the patriotic buzzwords mixed up. They’re part of the dueling public relations campaigns over the Patriot Act that the Bush administration and its critics have been locked in for the past two years. The act, a massive legislative package passed in 2001, bestowed new powers to law enforcement in the fight against terror. On one side, administration officials led by Attorney General John Ashcroft aver that without the law, America would be doomed to suffer more terrorist attacks. On the other, civil libertarians argue it is the act itself that poses the greatest threat to the American way of life by eroding constitutional protections. While political spin is nothing new, the level of hype, hyperbole and outright hysteria surrounding the act is extraordinary. And with the presidential election months away and several key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire in December 2005, both sides have stepped up to market their interpretation to the American public by launching Web sites, reaching out to local politicians, writing letters to newspapers and traveling on whistle-stop campaigns. “The law has taken on symbolic proportions over and above the nitty-gritty impact of its actual provisions,” says Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at D.C.’s Cato Institute. “There’s been misinformation on both sides,” Lynch says. “On the one end of the spectrum, you have protesters chanting that Ashcroft is Hitler. On the other end, you have an administration that responds to critics by questioning their patriotism.” After a measure that would have barred the Justice Department from using one Patriot Act provision nearly passed � the vote was deadlocked � in the House of Representatives in July, Ashcroft released a 30-page report outlining the law’s “usefulness.” The document, intended to bolster support for the act in a wavering Congress, met immediate criticism from the ACLU for focusing on anecdotal law enforcement successes and failing to address controversial aspects of the act. Many of the accomplishments cited in the report were unrelated to terrorism. “President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft need to spend less time waging public relations campaigns and more time responding to the specific, legitimate concerns of the American people,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in a statement. But the ACLU has been busy, too. So far this year, its president, Nadine Strossen, has given more than 20 speeches on the Patriot Act and civil liberties after Sept. 11. For opponents, even the law’s name � an acronym derived from the awkward title Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism � suggests Orwellian government and has given rise to buttons and bumper stickers with slogans like “The Patriot Act? That’s SO 1984″ and “Dissent IS Patriotic.” Critics frequently attribute policies to the act that are not technically included. “The USA Patriot Act has become a brand,” says Georgetown University Law Center professor Viet Dinh, who was instrumental in drafting the act as head of the DOJ’s legal policy shop from 2001 to 2003. “Activists lump everything that is objectionable about the war on terror, anything wrong with the world really, onto the USA Patriot Act. No more than 10 percent of what people ascribe to the USA Patriot Act on any given day is in the Patriot Act itself.” Fanning the Flames The Patriot Act passed Congress by overwhelming margins six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Section 215, perhaps the law’s most ballyhooed provision, authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation to demand court orders for tangible records related to national security cases held by third parties � which could include places such as libraries or hospitals. Another controversial part of the law permits federal law enforcement to wait before notifying the target of a search warrant in certain circumstances. The word “library” never actually appears in the act. Yet, mention the law in many parts of the country and folks think it gives the FBI free rein to snoop on the books they read. The association � while overly simplistic � has enormous resonance with the American public and has been seized upon by the law’ opponents to tap into Americans’ natural distrust of government. “We don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries,” Democratic Wunderkind Barack Obama, a Senate candidate from Illinois, said last week in his keynote speech at the party’s national convention. One ACLU handout alerts citizens that, under the Patriot Act, the government can “collect information about what books you read,” “search your home and not even tell you” and “take away your property without a hearing.” “The ACLU would like to depict that we’ve returned to the Age of McCarthy,” says Stuart Gerson, a partner at D.C.’s Epstein, Becker & Green and a senior DOJ official in the first Bush administration. Dinh accuses critics of deliberately peddling misinformation. “A lot of the fears out there are based on misconceptions,” he says. Administration detractors concede that the law has become a lightning rod for an array of concerns, including some not directly related to the Patriot Act. “People are commenting on a lot of policies they find unfair. If they use the wrong name, I don’t think they should be blamed,” says Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a Massachusetts-based grass-roots organization that pushes anti-Patriot Act resolutions at the local level. Regardless of whether the ACLU has been fair in its characterization of the Patriot Act, its public relations campaign has been enormously effective. Since January 2002, the organization has recruited more than 240,000 new members. In 2003, the ACLU collected roughly $1.6 million in donations over the Internet, compared with $630,000 in 2001. The ACLU’s grass-roots success is evidenced in 342 resolutions passed by towns, cities, counties and states in opposition to the law and other anti-terror policies. Many, including one passed July 26 in Des Moines, include boilerplate language posted on the ACLU’ Web site. Damon Moglin, ACLU national field coordinator, says the resolutions should influence members of Congress as they prepare to vote on whether to renew those provisions that sunset at the end of next year. “The fact is there is going to be a showdown in 2005, and tens of millions of people have come out and said, ‘You went too far, too fast,’” Moglin says. “I think the politicians have heard that.” While the resolutions have scant, if any, legal impact, their proliferation frustrates the Justice Department, in part because the movement shows no sign of slowing. In 2002, 12 resolutions were passed. In 2003, 214. So far this year, 106 resolutions have already passed. DOJ spokesman Mark Corallo says the resolutions don’t reflect true public opinion. “These are cookie-cutter ACLU resolutions,” Corallo says. “In most cases, the city council is presented with a resolution, usually from the ACLU, and they pass it without conducting any meetings or hearing any input from their local U.S. attorney.” Spin Cycle According to Corallo, fear of losing support in Congress drove the Justice Department last year to finally crank up its own public relations machine and respond to the claims of critics like the ACLU. “When we realized there were members of Congress who had voted for the act who were having second thoughts, we thought we’ better get out there,” he says. The department launched its Life and Liberty Web site devoted to defending the Patriot Act and urged U.S. attorneys to reach out to community groups and become more vocal advocates for the law. In August 2003, Ashcroft set out on an unusual publicity blitz. In just over one month, Ashcroft stumped for the act in visits to 32 cities in more than 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina. “We have used the tools provided in the Patriot Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people,” Ashcroft said in one speech. “We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil. We have used these tools to save innocent American lives. We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty.” More recently, Justice Department officials and U.S. attorneys have been encouraged to participate in debates, write letters to newspapers and communicate with local government officials who may be considering passing anti-Patriot Act resolutions. Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, took a leading role in the campaign and made dozens of appearances over the past year. “When we started talking to people in the community about the Patriot Act, we realized there were a number of serious misconceptions,” says Buchanan, who heads the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. “I’ve accepted any offer to debate whether it’s a town hall meeting, a university, a Rotary Club, a local television network.” The DOJ strategy consists of downplaying the act’s intrusion on Americans’ privacy and playing up the fear of future attacks. Still, with much of the American public entrenched in their views, it’s unclear how effective the campaign has been. According to Gallup Polls, public approval of the Patriot Act has decreased slightly since the department launched its PR offensive. In August 2003, 22 percent of those questioned felt the act went too far in restricting civil liberties. In February, 26 percent said the law went too far. DOJ’s Corallo says the 64 percent of respondents who feel that the law struck the right balance or did not go far enough is a victory for the department. In addition, 57 percent said they had great or moderate trust in Ashcroft to strike the right balance in the war on terror, with 43 percent supporting the ACLU. Still, some wonder whether it was a tactical mistake for the Justice Department to wait so long before entering the debate. While the department has tried to sell last month’s 210-210 vote in the House as a win, it doesn’ bode well for the administration that an amendment nearly passed that would have repudiated a part of the act it has portrayed as necessary and innocuous. “The Justice Department justifiably wants to be seen as tough and uncompromising on terrorism, and so, for a long time, their company line was that there is nothing to discuss or debate,” says Gerson, who served as acting attorney general during the first months of the Clinton administration “Probably, the public discourse would be better if the department had engaged in a more detailed discussion of the law’s various provisions.” Chris Link, executive director of ACLU Ohio, has been debating DOJ officials for the past year. Before each debate, she says she checks out the DOJ Web site to “see what the spin of the day is.” She adds, “The Justice Department loves to spin, and we love to spin right back.” Vanessa Blum is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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