-- President Bush said Thursday that Congress must extend the government's surveillance and law enforcement powers to track down potential terrorists, while crediting the USA Patriot Act with helping to thwart potential attacks.
In a speech at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy, Bush said authorities need the special powers to conduct secret searches, detain witnesses and track people deemed threats to the United States. Critics, including some conservatives concerned that the law tramples on the rights of individuals, want the act scaled back.
Bush said the new powers have allowed authorities to charge more than 400 people in terrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and convict more than half. Unless Congress acts, some provisions are set to expire at the end of the year.
"The Patriot Act has accomplished exactly what it was designed to do: it has protected American liberty and saved American lives," Bush told cadets and members of the state patrol. "For the sake of our national security, Congress must not rebuild a wall between law enforcement and intelligence."
The law was quickly enacted after the attacks on New York and Washington. But it has provoked an emotional debate about the proper balance between security and personal freedom.
Among the 16 provisions set to expire are sections allowing the use of roving wiretaps on multiple telephones and secret warrants for "tangible items" held by libraries, financial firms and other businesses.
"Letting those provisions expire would leave law enforcement in the dark," Bush said. The USA Patriot Act expanded the power of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to intercept information and data and share information obtained through foreign and domestic surveillance. Bush and many lawmakers want to make it even easier for the FBI to quickly obtain information in terrorism cases.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) responded that if the president is serious about protecting individual rights, "the way to prove that those are not just empty words is to engage in an honest debate about fixing the Patriot Act and abandon efforts to expand law enforcement powers in ways that threaten our freedoms."
The intelligence committee's chairman, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), and other senators want to permit the FBI to subpoena records in national security probes without the approval of a judge or grand jury and make it easier for the bureau to get copies of mail. Bush supports the enhanced subpoena power in concept, according to White House spokesman Dana Perino, but has not taken a position on the mail provision.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say the act is ripe for abuse, such as government reviews of personal records and information on law-abiding Americans without their knowledge. But Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who are pushing a bill to reduce the government's powers, recently told a Senate committee they cannot show any specific abuses.
"We wage war each day in a way that values and protects the civil liberties and the constitutional freedoms that make our nation so special," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said while introducing Bush at the highway patrol academy.
The public strongly backs the Bush position, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said the act should be renewed, while 39 percent said it should not. Support turned to opposition, however, when people were asked whether the FBI should be permitted to demand records without first getting the approval of a judge or prosecutor, which Bush and some lawmakers favor. Sixty-eight percent said they oppose this idea. Even Republicans, who overwhelmingly support the USA Patriot Act, are concerned about this, with 58 percent opposing it.
Several members of the Ohio state patrol in the audience are part of a task force that apprehended Iyman Faris, a truck driver from here, who said in court documents that he met with Osama bin Laden and planned deadly attacks inside the United States. Faris, who allegedly met with bin Laden at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, was instructed by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, to carry out a second wave of attacks in 2001. His potential targets reportedly included the Brooklyn Bridge.
Using authorities granted under the act, Faris was arrested in 2003 and later provided authorities with details of his al Qaeda contacts and terror plans. "Today, instead of planning terror attacks against the American people, Iyman Faris is sitting in an American prison," Bush said.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane in Washington contributed to this report.