Transcript

Gonzales Discusses Patriot Act

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Alberto Gonzales
United States Attorney General
Wednesday, December 14, 2005; 3:05 PM

United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was online Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 3:05 p.m. ET to discuss his op-ed in today's Washington Post: Reauthorize the Patriot Act .

In his op-ed, Gonzales explains why the provisions of the Patriot Act under consideration this week should be extended. He writes that he is confident that all concerns have been adequately addressed over the course of several congressional hearings, and he assures those worried about civil liberties that the additional safeguards will prevent any violations. Congress must put aside political rhetoric and vote to reauthorize the act, Gonzales writes, in order to keep Americans safe.

The transcript follows.

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Alberto Gonzales: I'm delighted to be here today to discuss a very important tool in our efforts to protect America from the terrorists who wish to harm us: the USA PATRIOT Act. As many of you know, parts of the act will expire on December 31 of this year unless the Senate acts to reauthorize it. I look forward to your questions.

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Morrison, Colo.: It appears you are only giving your side of the issue while giving lip service to any objections. I have a vague memory of reports of thousands of wire taps, many without the required authorization. Couldn't the Congress just extend the current provisions for 90 days and then they and the administration could work for a consensus, which the current bill doesn't seem to be?

Alberto Gonzales: Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misinformation about the PATRIOT Act and its use. The PATRIOT Act incorporates important safeguards, including judicial review, congressional oversight, and audits by the Inspector General. You mention wiretaps. All wiretaps must be authorized by a federal judge. In addition, investigators must show probable cause and comply with other requirements before the court may authorize the wiretap. This has always been the case, and the PATRIOT Act did nothing to diminish these safeguards.

The government's use of the PATRIOT Act has been the subject of a great deal of congressional oversight over the last several years. Just this year, the Congress has held at least 23 hearings about the PATRIOT Act, with at least 60 witnesses. I have personally testified three times on this topic. In addition, the DOJ Inspector General has reviewed uses of the PATRIOT Act twice a year. After all of this review, not a single verified abuse of the PATRIOT Act has been established. I believe that Congress should act now to reauthorize the important tools that will otherwise expire at the end of the month.

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Washington, D.C.: What would be so wrong with adopting Senator Leahy's proposal of extending the existing Patriot Act for 90 days while the details of the new Patriot Act are hammered out?

As you rightly point out, members of Congress should put aside the rhetoric and focus on the facts surrounding this vital legislation.' With so many Senators and Congressman, mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well, along with so many American citizens still uncomfortable with the bill, isn't it a time to try to build a true consensus? This new Patriot Act will affect all of our civil liberties. It should not simply be passed with a party-line vote. I think the American people deserve a Patriot Act we can all support.

Alberto Gonzales: The PATRIOT Act has been very effective in helping law enforcement disrupt terrorist cells, prevent terrorist attacks, and prosecute terrorists. As I mentioned in response to the previous question, the PATRIOT Act has already undergone extensive review and analysis by the Congress, by the DOJ Inspector General, and by other bodies such as the 9/11 Commission. It may well be the most debated legislative item in recent years. This extensive review has uncovered not one verified example of abuse of any of the Act's provisions. We do not need to choose between protecting America and protecting civil liberties. The PATRIOT Act does both. Moreover, the bill that the Senate is considering now contains at least 30 additional civil liberties safeguards that are not included in existing law. We believe that the Act's effectiveness, the extensive review and discussion that have already occurred, and the important additional safeguards in the pending legislation are reasons to reauthorize this important law now.

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Washington, D.C.: Please define "torture." Thank you.

Alberto Gonzales: The President has made it very clear, and I have said several times, that the U.S. Government does not condone torture under any circumstances. As you know, the United States is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, and Congress has passed laws that both define torture and outlaw it.

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Anonymous: It's true, as you say, that "There have been no verified civil liberties abuses in the four years of the act's existence." However, have the last four years seen any verified successful prevention of terror attacks using the tools offered by the Act?

Alberto Gonzales: The Department of Justice and other agencies have used the PATRIOT Act to disrupt a number of terrorist cells and to apprehend and prosecute other terrorist suspects. For example, the PATRIOT Act was used to dismantle terrorist cells in Portland, Oregon, and Lackawanna, New York. Fortunately, investigators were able to dismantle these cells before they could carry out any attacks.

In addition, some of the Act's provisions allow investigators in different parts of the government to share terrorism-related information with each other. As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, the failure to share information before 9/11 thwarted the FBI from locating two individuals who later hijacked airplanes on 9/11. With the important information-sharing provisions in the PATRIOT Act, investigators can now share information with each other to more effectively disrupt terrorist plans at the early stages.

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New York, N.Y.: What, if any, systems are built into the new version of the PATRIOT Act to provide oversight to how the Act is being executed? Who will have these responsibilities, and how will they assess the government's performance if the documents are classified?

Alberto Gonzales: The bill that the Senate is currently considering contains at least 30 new protections for civil liberties. For example, the bill makes clear that if a company receives a national security letter (NSL), it may consult an attorney and may challenge the NSL in court. The bill contains similar provisions for section 215 -- again, it will clarify that the recipient of a section 215 business records request may consult an attorney and may challenge the request.

The bill also adds a number of new oversight provisions. For example, the bill requires the government to report to Congress and the public the number of times the government has used NSLs and section 215. It also requires the Inspector General to review the government's use of these tools. The Department will also be required to report classified information about these tools to Congress.

Another safeguard in the bill is a requirement that if the government needs to request certain sensitive types of information in a national security investigation, the request must be approved by a very high-level official in the FBI.

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Richmond, Va.: You state that many concerns over the abuse of PATRIOT Act authority vis-a-vis civil liberties have been shown to be unfounded. However, I'm unclear as to whether the safeguards are sufficient, or if our current leaders have simpled acted with restraint. Can you elaborate on some of the safeguards that will prevent abuse by future officials, agents etc.

Alberto Gonzales: The PATRIOT Act contains many very important safeguards for civil liberties. Every investigative tool is subject to limitations and safeguards. For example, law enforcement must get a warrant before conducting a search. They must also obtain court approval before using a wiretap. These safeguards existed before the PATRIOT Act and still do. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (which some refer to as the "library provision") is a good example of the clear civil liberties safeguards in the Act. Before using section 215 to request business records, the FBI must first get approval from another office within the Justice Department. After that, it must ask a court to authorize the request. Only after the court approves may the FBI issue the request. These requests may be issued only to obtain information relevant to an authorized national-security investigation. In addition, the Department is required to report to Congress on its use of Section 215, and Congress has conducted extensive oversight of our use of Section 215.

Section 213, which allows the government to delay notice of a search under limited circumstances, also contains important safeguards. So-called "delayed notice search warrants" were not created by the USA PATRIOT Act, but the Act created a uniform nationwide standard for using them. The FBI may not use a delayed-notice search warrant without approval from a federal judge. The judge must both authorize the search and authorize the FBI to delay notice of the search. Delaying notice is necessary in a small number of cases to ensure that a suspect does not flee, destroy evidence, or intimidate or kill witnesses. In every case, the person whose property is searched will be informed of the search. Section 213 only allows temporary delay in notice, and only if the court approves it.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.

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