Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday criticized a Senate bill that would place new restrictions on law enforcement in the USA Patriot Act, saying the legislation would hamper the government's ability to prevent terrorist attacks.
Gonzales, during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post, said he favors a competing House version of the antiterrorism law that includes fewer restrictions on the government.
"I have a personal preference for the House version," Gonzales said. "There are certain provisions of the Senate version that make it more difficult to protect our country." He said he was hopeful that "at the end of the day . . . we will have a conference bill" that is closer to the House version of the legislation.
Gonzales's remarks represent the administration's sharpest criticism of the Senate legislation, which was approved by unanimous consent of the GOP-controlled Senate and co-sponsored by the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Until now, Justice Department officials have signaled their preference for the House bill while avoiding explicit criticism of the Senate version.
A spokesman for Specter did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday.
Sixteen provisions of the controversial Patriot Act, which Congress voted overwhelmingly to enact weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are due to expire at the end of this year unless Congress acts. Although most of the law would become permanent under either bill, the Senate legislation includes tighter restrictions on the FBI's power to seize business records and would place a four-year time limit on two of the law's most controversial provisions.
Gonzales said yesterday that the Senate bill's tighter provisions would make it too difficult for investigators to conduct secret searches or obtain "roving wiretaps" in terrorism investigations. He also said the threshold for obtaining business records, including those held by libraries, would be set too high by the Senate bill.
Parts of the Patriot Act have come under fire from advocacy groups, lawmakers and hundreds of local governments as intrusions on civil liberties. Gonzales and other Justice officials say such fears are overblown and that no abuses have been documented.
A new poll to be released today by the University of Connecticut found that a majority of Americans support the Patriot Act, but most are not knowledgeable about the law's details when asked specific questions.
The poll also found that "the more the public knows about the Patriot Act, the less they support it," according to a summary of the findings. Less than 60 percent of those who know the intent of the law support it, compared with 70 percent who do not know its intent, the survey said.
The survey of 802 adults also found that only 14 percent of those polled supported all the major provisions of the law when asked about them in detail.