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Bush Assails Democrats Over Patriot Act

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, right, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut join the president to back the law.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, right, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut join the president to back the law. (Pool Photo By Shawn Thew)

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By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

President Bush accused Democrats yesterday of blocking a full reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act for political reasons, as the White House stepped up an aggressive campaign to defend the president's terrorism-fighting authority.

"For partisan reasons, in my mind, people have not stepped up," Bush told reporters, with 19 federal prosecutors by his side. "The enemy has not gone away; they're still there, and I expect Congress to understand that we're still at war and they've got to give us the tools necessary to win this war."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters earlier in the day, said Senate Democrats are simply doing the bidding of liberal special interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the broad surveillance power authorized by the act. Democrats are trying to "appease" the ACLU "because they want to weaken and undermine the Patriot Act," McClellan said.

The Patriot Act, which Congress voted to extend until the end of this month amid a bitter political dispute over its reach, provides the federal government with broad power to monitor and prosecute terrorism suspects and those helping them. Many Democrats and a few key Republicans oppose the act as written because they say it does not provide adequate protections for the civil liberties of innocent Americans.

The Patriot Act is expected to dominate the debate when Congress returns at the end of the month and to serve as a backdrop for a broader, and possibly even more contentious, argument over Bush's anti-terrorism policies.

The White House is bracing for a heated dispute over both the Patriot Act and the recent revelations that Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to monitor communications within the United States involving terrorism suspects overseas. Congress is planning hearings on the NSA program this month and another vote on the Patriot Act early next month, when the current extension expires.

Adopting campaign-style tactics, Bush and his aides plan to accuse Democrats of jeopardizing national security to further their political agenda, a tack that worked well for the White House in the 2002 and 2004 elections. But the political environment is different now, with Bush less popular and Democrats better organized in opposition.

Moreover, key Republicans are also raising objections to Bush's broad interpretation of presidential power. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was among the first to demand hearings on the NSA intercepts, and four GOP senators who typically back Bush in policy disputes played crucial roles in blocking the full reauthorization of the Patriot Act before Congress adjourned shortly before Christmas.

On another front, the Justice Department notified U.S. District Court judges in Washington that it will seek the dismissal of lawsuits from more than 300 Guantanamo Bay detainees who are questioning the legality of their confinement, using a provision of the defense appropriations law that the Bush administration says limits existing challenges.

The new provision prevailed after a sponsor, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), said it would not apply to pending cases. But the Justice Department said the law eliminates the jurisdiction of district courts over challenges to the legality of detentions at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The new law still permits detainees to appeal being classified as enemy combatants or any military-commission convictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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