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Political spin is nothing new, but hyperbole over the USA Patriot Act has reached unusually high levels. With several key provisions of the sweeping antiterrorism statute set to expire in December 2005, supporters and opponents are already engaged in a pitched battle over the law’s necessity. The U.S. Department of Justice claims the act is an essential weapon in the war on terrorism. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union counter that the law threatens many of the country’s most valued freedoms. The dissension over the Patriot Act stands in contrast to its overwhelming passage by both houses of Congress six weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. While the consensus over the law broke down soon afterward, opposition has risen considerably this year. In July the House of Representatives deadlocked on a measure that would have prevented the Justice Department from using section 215 of the Patriot Act. Perhaps the law’s most controversial provision, it authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation to seek records related to national security cases held by third parties � which could include places such as libraries or hospitals. After its brush with near-defeat, the Justice Department released a 30-page report this summer outlining the law’s “usefulness.” The document was immediately criticized by the ACLU for focusing on anecdotal law enforcement successes and failing to address controversial aspects of the act. “President Bush and Attorney General [John] Ashcroft need to spend less time waging public relations campaigns,” ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement. But the civil liberties group has been busy with its own PR effort. So far this year, ACLU president Nadine Strossen has given more than 20 speeches on the Patriot Act and civil liberties in the post � 9/11 world. Her critique has been echoed by buttons and bumper stickers with slogans like “The Patriot Act? That’s SO 1984″ and “Dissent IS Patriotic.” According to Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at Washington, D.C.’s Cato Institute, “The law has taken on symbolic proportions over and above the nitty-gritty impact of its actual provisions.” In Lynch’s view, “There’s been misinformation on both sides. 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.” The inflamed debate over section 215 captures the passions over the Patriot Act as a whole. While the provision authorizes the FBI to go after records held by third parties, the word “library” never actually appears in the law’s text. Yet many people think the Patriot Act gives the FBI free rein to check on the books they read. At the Democratic Party’s national convention in July, for example, Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama said, “We don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries.” Viet Dinh, who headed the Justice Department’s legal policy office from 2001 to 2003 and was instrumental in drafting the Patriot Act, says that the statute “has become a brand.” Now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Dinh maintains, “Activists lump everything that is objectionable about the war on terror � anything wrong with the world really � onto the USA Patriot Act.” The law’s opponents concede that it 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 group that pushes anti � at the local level. These resolutions � which have been passed by more than 300 towns, cities, counties, and states � are a sign of the strength of the campaign against the Patriot Act. 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. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo says the resolutions don’t reflect true public opinion. “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,” he says. Still, Corallo admits that fear of losing congressional support led Justice to crank up its own public relations machine last year. First, the department launched a Web site defending the Patriot Act. Then, in August 2003, Attorney General Ashcroft set out on an unusual publicity blitz in which he visited 32 cities in just over one month. 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 Some observers wonder whether Justice made a tactical mistake by waiting so long to enter the debate. “The Justice Department justifiably wants to be seen as tough and uncompromising on terrorism,” says Stuart Gerson, a partner in the D.C. office of Epstein, Becker & Green and a senior Justice official in the first Bush administration. “So, for a long time, their company line was that there is nothing to discuss or debate,” Gerson adds. “Probably, the public discourse would be better if the department had engaged in a more-detailed discussion of the law’s various provisions.”

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