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The Justice Department launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign in 2003 to boost support for the USA Patriot Act and beat back opponents. Recently obtained internal DOJ documents reveal just how organized and aggressive that push has been. The documents shed light on the efforts of U.S. Attorneys across the country to persuade members of Congress, local officials and citizens of the merits of the anti-terror law. The DOJ records were obtained in July by D.C.’s Electronic Privacy Information Center under the Freedom of Information Act after a year of litigation. The documents reflect concerns within the Justice Department that the campaign could violate the federal Anti-Lobbying Act, a 1919 law that generally prohibits government employees from lobbying for or against legislation. “Your role is educational only. You must not encourage citizens or public officials to make congressional contacts or to attempt to influence any vote concerning the USA Patriot Act,” one DOJ memo states. To avoid ethical pitfalls, Main Justice instructed the 93 Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorneys, who are exempt from the Anti-Lobbying Act, to contact Congress members personally, not through staff. Paul McNulty, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, says his colleagues were eager to participate in the Justice Department’s outreach efforts and did so within the bounds of the law. “We were very willing to play that role, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t run afoul of any restrictions in the process,” he says. An Aug. 14, 2003, DOJ memo directed all U.S. Attorneys to contact their congressional delegation to discuss the Patriot Act, hold community meetings “as soon as possible,” and report back by Sept. 3. The DOJ initiative resulted in U.S. Attorneys organizing a flurry of town hall meetings and televised debates around the country. Prosecutors addressed community groups, met with the editorial boards of local papers and submitted op-ed pieces. Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the department’s response to the center’s FOIA request, which included only documents prepared before Sept. 10, 2003, indicates that prosecutors made or attempted more than 240 contacts with members of Congress in response to the department’s request. According to DOJ e-mails, updates on the activities of prosecutors were provided to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s top aides — Chief of Staff David Ayres and Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite. Several reports from the field chronicle efforts to derail anti-Patriot Act resolutions. Former Oregon U.S. Attorney Michael Mosman reported meeting “with each member of the Portland City Council to try and prevent a city council resolution against the Patriot Act.” “Although they will probably pass some sort of resolution, we have reason to believe that it will be so watered down that we will be able to live with it,” Mosman added. Anne Mills Wagoner, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, described an appearance before the Durham County Commission. “The petitioners spoke first, and I responded to their criticism of the Patriot Act and took questions from County Commission and members of the audience,” Wagoner wrote. “The Commission took no stand at the meeting but indicated that they supported the Bill of Rights and had some concerns about the Patriot Act which they ‘might’ forward to their Congressional representatives.” The Portland and Durham County resolutions were approved. At least one U.S. Attorney expressed skepticism about the value of encouraging prosecutors to participate in local debates. “If past is prologue, these are not debates, but platforms for individuals to promote political agendas,” wrote Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton. “I will gladly go to such an event if it is in the best interest of Justice, but I do not see that dedicating time and effort to these events is of real benefit.”

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