WASHINGTON, July 9 (UPI) -- The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union are at war over what the ACLU says are deliberate misrepresentations of the USA Patriot Act.
The department strongly denies ACLU allegations that it is misleading the public about the sweeping surveillance provisions of the massive anti-terrorism law.
The battle between the civil liberties group and the department is fully joined as Congress considers the proposed USA Patriot II Act, which would extend some of the domestic spying provisions of its predecessor.
At stake is public opinion and the opinion of members of Congress who are being asked to enact or block the proposed law.
The ACLU released a report Wednesday, "Seeking Truth from Justice," that concludes the Justice Department participated in a "pattern of deceit" about the effects of the first USA Patriot Act on average Americans.
"It is time for the Justice Department to stop misleading the American people," the report says. The USA Patriot Act was enacted by Congress in 2001 "with minimal discussion and debate in the panicked weeks after 9-11."
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo had just barely glanced at the report Wednesday morning, but his name is all over it. The report repeatedly cites quotes from Corallo and from Attorney General John Ashcroft as examples of misrepresentation.
The quotes were taken out of context, Corallo said, and are missing the qualifiers he made in the second part of his answers to questions.
A frustrated Corallo also urged the public to read the actual language of the act to see if it is being misrepresented.
"The Patriot Act was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the United States Congress," Corallo said in a phone interview. "It is the single most important tool the Congress has given federal law enforcement to prevent terrorist attacks."
He pointed out that "the federal appeals courts have consistently upheld our authority under the USA Patriot Act."
Nor, he said, does the act give the department sweeping new powers.
"The USA Patriot Act simply allows us to apply tools that we already had to fight organized crime and drug trafficking to terrorism," he said. "The Patriot Act goes an extra step in prohibiting investigations of United States citizens and green card holders solely on the basis of their First Amendment activities" -- political expression. "That's something that our critics never mention."
Corallo repeatedly urged members of the public to read the act and decide for themselves about its effects.
"When the average American reads the act and sees that language, they understand that what we are doing is protecting them from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties," he said.
In a statement announcing the release of Wednesday's report, the ACLU said that it has "found a consistent pattern of factually inaccurate assertions by the Department of Justice in statements to the media and Congress, statements that mischaracterize the scope, potential impact and likely harm of the now-notorious ... act."
The report contrasts Justice Department statements about the act with the language of the act itself, the ACLU statement said.
"If the Justice Department wishes to convince the American people and their elected representatives that it carries the Constitution with it at all times during its prosecution of the war on terror, it must be conscientious with the truth," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in the statement.
"That the department and its allies would repeatedly misrepresent the scope and nature of new surveillance powers is troubling, to say the least," said Ann Beeson, ACLU associate legal director.
The statement particularly targeted what it called the department's "repeated assertion that the USA Patriot Act's surveillance provisions cannot be used against U.S. citizens. In fact, the surveillance provisions are applicable to citizens and non-citizens alike. Some of the surveillance provisions can be used even against citizens who are not suspected of espionage, terrorism or crime of any kind."
The statement also cited what it said was the department's "repeated assertion that section 215 of the Patriot Act, which permits the government to demand that any organization -- including a library, bookstore, or hospital -- turn its records over to the FBI, cannot be invoked unless the government can show 'probable cause.' In fact," the statement said, "the law contains no such restriction. Section 215 requires only that the government declare that the records are 'sought for' an ongoing investigation. The 'sought for' standard is an extremely lenient one, and it bears no resemblance to 'probable cause.'"
The statement added that "the standard is so low is especially troubling in light of the attorney general's recent acknowledgement (at a June 2003 congressional hearing) that the FBI could use section 215 to obtain not only library and bookstore records but also computer files, educational records, and even genetic information."
The full report is accessible from aclu.org.
It quotes Justice Department officials in newspaper stories across the country.
Among the "half-truths" cited by the report is the Justice Department assertion that investigators must "convince a judge" to obtain records under section 215.
The language of the act, the report says, only requires certification that the records are needed, not proof of any kind.
Among the outright "falsehoods" cited by the report is a Justice Department's assertion that investigators have no interest "in looking at the book preferences of Americans."
"Democratic societies are based on checks and balances," the report says, "not on blind faith in the good intentions of government officials."
The report points to a Justice Department inspector general's investigation that found abuses of illegal immigrants detained in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.